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Golfers Must Prepare for Great Unknown

Whistling Straits, in its first time as a major host, could be the star of the PGA weekend. Wind probably is more important than length.

August 12, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

KOHLER, Wis. — Best bets to capture the 86th PGA Championship, which begins today at Whistling Straits, include the usual favorites: anyone, beats-me and No. 163 in the current world rankings.

Forecasting the PGA in recent years is pretty much like playing pin the tail on the donkey. Thirteen of the last 16 champions have been first-time major winners and this year's tournament is further complicated by a 6-year-old, Pete Dye-designed course that appears to be have been inspired by equal parts Ireland, Scotland and Alice in Wonderland.

Dye's creation along the shores of Lake Michigan is a bizarre, treeless, lunar-landscape setup that looks like a links course yet, the experts say, really doesn't play like one.

At 7,514 yards, Whistling Straits is the longest cow patch in major tournament history and also a mass of contradictions. It has 1,400 bunkers, yet only a fraction of those will come into play.

The green on the par-four, 500-yard finishing hole is so large players may have to gouge pitching wedges into the putting surface to reach the pin.

This muscle-man setup would figure to favor the drive bombers on tour, yet Phil Mickelson insists, "I don't think the golf course favors a long hitter."

Who it does favor remains the big question:

The short answer is no one really knows, which could make for one of the zaniest, wide-open majors in recent memory.

Or, Tiger Woods could win by 11 shots.

The course is so new most players have toured it only a few times.

Mickelson flew in last week and played an eight-hour practice round, scribbling notes like a land surveyor.

Jerry Kelly, a Wisconsin native who probably knows the course better than any player in the field, says the answer to Whistling Straits is blowing in the wind.

"It's all weather," Kelly said. "This place, if it's calm, I think 15 under could win. I think if it blows, even par could do pretty darned well."

If Wednesday's practice round was any indication, give the advantage to even par.

Woods offered, "I don't think I've played a golf course this difficult, if the wind blows."

His opinion seems to be shared by most.

You could argue this year's PGA Championship is really the third British Open played this year, following the extreme links-makeover U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in June and last month's real Open at Royal Troon.

Wednesday, at Royal St. Sheboygan, the skies spit a frigid rain and the wind turned at least one patron's umbrella inside out.

Out on the course, Whistling Straits was playing to par(ka) 72 as the smart players stayed in the clubhouse.

"I tell you," Woods said, "If I was an 18-handicapper I would not want to play here."

Today's opening round might be likened to the christening of a new ship. There is a certain mystery involved as this PGA pushes out of port -- though no one has, to date, made any cynical references to the Titanic.

Padraig Harrington of Ireland said of the tournament, "the vast majority of the field can win."

Perhaps, although no European has won since the event switched from match play to stroke play in 1958. In fact, this PGA is so inside-out backward that convention may actually work its way back into contention.

While the Wanamaker Trophy has been stenciled of late with one-hit wonders -- Shaun Micheel last year at Oak Hill; Rich Beem in 2002 at Hazeltine; David Toms in 2001 at Atlanta Country Club -- it appears this year the game's top guns may be primed for the prize.

In no particular order, one must consider:

* Mickelson: He has finished with a Lawrence Welk intro in the first three majors: 1-2-3.

With any luck, Mickelson could have stormed into Whistling Straits with a chance to make history.

"I'm three shots away from having [a shot at] the Grand Slam," Mickelson said.

"Certainly I think about that. I don't dwell on it. What I try to do is think about what I can do to make up those three shots."

Mickelson won his first major at the Masters in April, finished second to Retief Goosen at the U.S. Open and third at the British Open.

* Vijay Singh. He has won four times this year and leads the PGA Tour money list with $5,813,566. He has 29 top-10 finishes since the start of 2003.

Singh won the PGA in 1998 and, now 41, he knows the window on winning major tournaments will slowly begin to close.

* Ernie Els. His season has been a mixed 14-club bag: wildly successful, yet painfully disappointing. Els is the only player besides Mickelson to have finished in the top 10 of each of this year's majors.

Els doesn't have a victory to show for it, though, finishing second at the Masters and British Open and tied for ninth at the U.S. Open when he shot a final-round 80. Els seems possessed to add another three or four majors to the three he owns, which would solidify his standing as one of the game's all-time greats.

* Woods. Tiger says he's close, yada, yada, yada ... We've heard it for two years now, but he might be right. While Woods has not won a stroke-play event this year, he is hitting the ball straighter off the tee and putting himself into position to win majors.

"I feel like I'm playing better and I am excited about it," Woods said.

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