First three majors of '09 prove a point

Updated: August 12, 2009

CHASKA, Minn. -- The idea of trying to pick the winner heading into a major championship is ridiculous, with this year's prior results offering plenty of proof. Sure, it's easy to go with Tiger Woods -- check out the end of this column to see just how easy it is -- but even the game's No. 1 player is no lock.

Woods went into the previous three major championships coming off a victory and was the prohibitive favorite. He ended up tied for sixth and four strokes back at both the Masters and U.S. Open, then missed the cut at the British Open.

Lucas Glover

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Lucas Glover might not have been the fan favorite to win the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, but he still helped provide a stirring plot that saw Phil Mickelson and David Duval come up just short.

And it is probably safe to say that few outside the immediate families of Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover or Stewart Cink had much hope for their major championship victories.

"You've got to remember, there's always going to be the first time you win a major," said defending PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who has three major titles. "So Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink had to start somewhere. Time will tell, when they win more, people will probably remember those, Lucas' win at the U.S. Open or Stewart's even more … if they back it up in years to come."

That is likely the key for each of this year's major winners as the PGA Championship gets set to begin at Hazeltine National on Thursday. Win more, and it will serve to validate their victories even more.

It has been a strange year in terms of the story that could have been but wasn't.

At the Masters, Kenny Perry would have been the oldest Masters and major championship winner and had a historic victory in his grasp until two late bogeys led to a playoff and a loss to Cabrera -- who won his second major.

At the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson -- who has now finished second five times at the Open -- was a huge sentimental choice, especially since he was playing just his second tournament following a break when he announced that his wife, Amy, had breast cancer. Even David Duval, who posted his first top-10 in seven years, would have made for an amazing Open winner. Instead, Glover, who won for the first time in four years, held the trophy.

And then there was the British Open. Few sports stories would have topped Tom Watson, at age 59, adding a sixth Claret Jug to his collection. The fact that he hit a perfect drive and a seemingly perfect second shot to the par-4 18th at Turnberry when a par would have won the championship made the ending all the more excruciating.

But Watson failed to get up and down from just over the green, then lost in a four-hole playoff to Cink -- who had birdied the 18th hole to give himself a chance.

"From a fan's point of view, I think it's been very, very exciting," Harrington said. "If Tom Watson won, yes. If David Duval or Phil won the U.S. Open, yes … but I think the actual enjoyment of the event, like Tom Watson and Stewart Cink at the Open … could not have created more excitement than they did.

"OK, people would have remembered more if Tom Watson won, but it still does not take away from the quality of Stewart Cink's win or the quality of the event. It was exciting right up to the edge."

And really, that's all we can ask. The PGA has 98 of the top 100 players in the world competing, which makes it the most loaded field of any major. While Woods is the favorite and there are a dozen or so players you expect to be there, really, the contenders can come from anywhere.

Cabrera, Glover and Cink reinforce that notion.

The slow-play issue

There are two sides to the mini-controversy that has simmered this week in the wake of Tiger Woods' comments Sunday after the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Woods said the outcome was "ruined" by rules official John Paramor.

The longtime and respected European Tour rules official put Woods and Padraig Harrington on the clock on the 16th tee, and Harrington subsequently triple-bogeyed the hole. Woods felt that given the situation -- they were the last group on the course and the only players in contention -- some discretion should have been used.

Here are the two sides. One, Paramor was simply doing his job. Two, slow-play rules are so poorly enforced, what was the big deal?

The view here is the latter. Yes, rules are rules. The group was out of position. Paramor was doing his job. Harrington and Woods had been warned earlier to get moving. Still, without hard-and-fast rules that govern slow play on the PGA Tour, why decide to come down at that point?

True, Harrington needed to deal with it better. He was not even in danger of a penalty with one bad time. A seasoned pro, Harrington should have gone about his business and not worried about it. And he's admitted as much.

Woods has suffered some criticism for this, from those who believe he has unfairly called out Paramor. It is interesting, however, that he chose to fight such a battle and continued it this week.

One thing is certain: It can't hurt that golf's chronic slow-play program is again a subject of discussion. If only something would truly be done about it.

A look at this week's venue

For the second time, Hazeltine National Golf Club is the site of the PGA Championship, the first since Rich Beem's 1-stroke victory over Tiger Woods in 2002.

The course was originally designed by Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1962. There have been several modifications to the course over the years, the latest performed by Jones' son, Rees, who added substantial yardage to the venue to stretch it to more than 7,600 yards, making it the longest in major championship history.

While players mostly are downplaying the length -- yes, it's long, but they don't expect the longest tees to be used every day -- there still are three par-5s that measure over 600 yards each -- the third, 11th and 15th holes. Most players feel the teeth of the course begin at the 518-yard, par-4 12th. In the practice rounds, some players had difficulty reaching the green in two strokes.

The good news is that the fairways appear to be somewhat generous for a major championship, although the rough is penalizing and the 5 inches of rain that fell Friday has still left the course softer than intended. Beem's winning total in 2002 was 278, 10 under par.

This will be the fourth men's major contested at Hazeltine. England's Tony Jacklin won the 1970 U.S. Open, and Payne Stewart captured the 1991 U.S. Open in a playoff over Scott Simpson. The PGA in 2002 was the first time Woods finished runner-up in a major.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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Birdies and bogeys

Birdies:

1. Tiger Woods. With his fifth victory of the year at the Bridgestone, it will be hard to question Woods, no matter what happens at the PGA Championship or the rest of the season.

2. Padraig Harrington. The Irishman had one bad hole at Firestone but put up a strong fight against Woods, finally breaking out of his yearlong slump.

3. Tim Clark. The South African called a penalty on himself Saturday at the Bridgestone when he realized he had failed to move his ball mark back to its original position. Nobody knew. Nobody said a word. But Clark realized the mistake two holes later, looked at a TV replay, then assessed himself the damaging 2-stroke penalty.

Bogeys:

1. Slow play. It is a chronic problem in golf, specifically the pro game. And since amateurs take their cues from the slowpoke pros, they play slow, too. But when officials put Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington on the clock Sunday at the Bridgestone, it was akin to calling traveling in the waning moments of an NBA game. In both cases, the strict interpretation of the rule book is hardly ever applied. So why then?

2. Robert Karlsson and Trevor Immelman. It's been a tough year for these guys. Both will miss their third straight major at the PGA because of injury, making them the only players among the top 100 in the world not at Hazeltine.

3. Presidents Cup. Does anyone even know that this is the last week for qualifying? For some reason, what has turned into a nice event in non-Ryder Cup years is being totally ignored.

Golf in the Olympics

The International Olympic Committee's executive board is set to narrow the list of new sports added to the games to two on Thursday. Golf has been lobbying for inclusion and the bid appears to be favorable.

The final decision will be made Oct. 9 in Copenhagen, and a 106-person committee can decide to take one or both sports recommended or reject them both completely -- although most observers expect a rubber-stamp of the executive board's recommendation.

Other sports trying to make the Olympic lineup include rugby sevens, karate, squash, softball, baseball and roller sports. Golf has been in the Olympics twice, most recently in 1904. It would not be part of the games until 2016.

Notables

• Tiger Woods is the only player to win the PGA multiple times this decade. His victories came in 2000, 2006 and 2007. He also won the championship in 1999. A fifth victory would tie him for the most PGA titles with Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus.

• Padraig Harrington is attempting to become just the second European to win consecutive PGAs. The last to do it was England's Jim Barnes -- and he won the first two PGAs. Barnes won in 1916, then the tournament again in 1919 -- it was not played in 1917 and 1918 because of World War I.

• Harrington is also attempting to become just the second player since 1938 to repeat at the PGA. Tiger Woods has done it twice (1999-2000, 2006-07), the only player to do so since Denny Shute in 1936-37.

• Hazeltine National is one of five courses to host a major championship in the Twin Cities. The five are Hazeltine (2002 and 2009 PGA Championship, 1970 and 1991 U.S. Open), Minikahda Club (1916 U.S. Open), Interlachen Country Club (1930 U.S. Open), Keller Golf Club (1932 and 1954 PGA Championship) and Minneapolis Golf Club (1959 PGA Championship).

• Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, 17, is not only the youngest player in the field, but he is also the youngest ever to play in the PGA. The oldest player this week is California PGA club pro Chris Starkjohann, who is 53.

Quotable

"I hope Mr. Jones doesn't take this offensively, but I think Mr. Jones went down to every tee box and looked down every fairway and turned around 180 degrees and just started walking. This thing is just long. I mean, it's just excessively long, and it's nowhere near the same golf course that it was. But it's the state of the modern game, I guess. In order to make it harder, just make it longer."
-- Rich Beem, who won the PGA at 2002 at Hazeltine, on the length added to the course by architect Rees Jones.

Catching up with last year's champ

Padraig Harrington had not been in the top 10 on the PGA Tour since his victory at last year's PGA Championship until last week's tie for second at the Bridgestone Invitational. Was that a one-week deal or a sign of things to come?

Not even Harrington knows for sure. He has spoken many times over the last several months of his desire to work on something in his swing that has been bothering him and that he hoped would help him going forward. If he never wins another major, observers will always wonder whether that was a mistake.

But Harrington appears content with his decision, and in the past few weeks he has gotten back to working on scoring rather than being so consumed by technique. After missing five straight cuts, he won the Irish PGA -- which is not a sanctioned tournament -- before getting off to a decent start at the British Open, only to falter on the weekend and finish in a tie for 65th. He did have three rounds in the 60s last week at Firestone in finishing tied for second to Tiger Woods.

Harrington became the first European to win the PGA a year ago since Tommy Armour in 1930. He tied for 17th at Hazeltine in 2002, his best finish at the tournament aside from his victory last year.

PGA Championship picks

Horse for the Course. Justin Leonard. It is easy to forget that Leonard held a 3-shot lead over Rich Beem heading into the final round at Hazeltine seven years ago, and finished tied for fourth after a final-round 77. Leonard tied for eighth at the British Open.

Birdie Buster. Robert Allenby. The Aussie found something recently with his putting stroke and shot four rounds in the 60s at Firestone last week, including a final-round 66 that earned him a tie for second, 4 strokes behind Tiger Woods.

Super Sleeper. Rich Beem. The 2002 PGA champ at Hazeltine has not won since that victory and is coming off rounds of 80-80 in Reno-Tahoe and has made just 10 cuts in 20 events this year. Perhaps the good vibes will return in Minnesota.

Winner. Tiger Woods. He's won the last two PGA Championships he played (missing last year because of injury), plus the last two tournaments he's played. If Woods finds his form on the greens, it should be major championship No. 15.