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A Sport in a Major Identity Crisis

August 18, 2003|THOMAS BONK

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Now that the last golf ball has been chopped out of the rough at Oak Hill Country Club, grab the phone and hit the speed dial. Alert the authorities. Get to work filling out that report.

Who swiped the majors this year?

All right, so it was no crime that Mike Weir won the Masters, striking a blow not only for left-handed Canadians, but also for guys who dress all in black and are neither Gary Player nor a cat burglar.

And when Jim Furyk won the U.S. Open, it was long overdue, especially for all those like him who have a swing that looks like someone beating a rug on a clothesline.

But after that, the funny stuff started. When Ben Curtis won the British Open, it raised more than a few eyebrows, basically because he was ranked 396th in the world and hadn't even played in a major before.

This brings us to what happened Sunday at the PGA Championship.

The newest major champion is 34-year-old Shaun Micheel. Just in case you don't already know, it's pronounced mick-keel. And the name belongs to the 169th-ranked player in the world ... who had never won a PGA Tour tournament before. At least he had played a few majors before, two actually, which moves him way out of Curtis territory.

The Micheel file is not long. He was born in Orlando, Fla., went to college at Indiana, lives in Memphis, Tenn., won a minor league tour event in North Carolina and another one in Singapore.

If that's what it takes to win a major in New York, then start breaking out the maps. Actually, it was almost impossible to figure out who was doing what at Oak Hill on closing day.

South African Tim Clark, the 1997 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, challenged for a while and was even briefly tied for the lead. It was difficult to figure out which was more surprising, that Clark was in the tournament or that he was in contention.

In the pantheon of Clarks (Dick, Roy, Lewis &), Tim is far from the lead in the recognition derby, which served him well in the fourth and final and most unpredictable major of the year ... or at least since last month.

Curtis was the longest of shots last month at the British Open. You could have gotten better odds that Old Tom Morris would come back, throw his tam-o'-shanter onto the green, fire up his briar pipe, then whomp everybody with his mashie.

At least Curtis had some big names to keep him company on the back nine at Royal St. George's. Tiger Woods had a chance and so did Davis Love III and Vijay Singh, not to mention Thomas Bjorn, although he eventually got lost in quicksand.

But after the first nine holes Sunday at Oak Hill, it was lonely at the top. The only three guys with a chance were Micheel, Clark and Campbell. If you had polled the entire gallery Thursday and asked who that trio was, the answer probably would have been a law firm, internists or an opening act.

So, good for those guys, who finished 1-2-3 Sunday, the only players under par for the week. Well played and all that.

But what about ... Woods and Ernie Els and Weir and Singh and all those big stars who are supposed to contend in majors and who have all won before?

The answer is that not one of them shot under par Sunday. Out of 70 players, only five did, though, so it wasn't exactly easy.

Of course, Woods tied for 39th and was way out of it already, so remove him from the discussion. Tiger had an off week ... it's allowed. But there were some major blowups that needed some answers.

How do you explain Weir blasting out of the gate with five straight bogeys, signing with a 75, tying for seventh?

Or Els, who had a whiplash-inducing round of three birdies and four bogeys, tying for fifth.

Singh tied for 34th as he slid to a 79, sort of an ugly repeat of his last round at the U.S. Open, where he had a 78.

Furyk was too far back to make a move and tied for 18th.

That left the 85th PGA Championship, one of the most prestigious tournaments in golf, to be decided by a first-time major winner. Actually, it goes deeper than that when you remember that Micheel's best finish in 163 previous events was a tie for third at this year's B.C. Open.

We probably should have seen this one coming a long way off. Counting last year's PGA Championship winner, Rich Beem, that makes five first-time major winners in a row.

And for the first time since 1969, there were four first-time major winners in the same year. If Weir and Furyk figured to break through sometime, you'd have to go a long way to find anybody who figured Curtis and Micheel would add their names to that group.

Maybe all that's left to do now is to salute the winners and get to know them, whoever they are.

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