Woods spots leaders eight shots
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Back when Seabiscuit was the fastest thing on four legs, they used to level the track for the horses racing against him by saddling the thoroughbred with about eight pounds of lead to give the others a fighting chance.
That's sort of what Tiger Woods did to himself Thursday at Baltusrol Golf Club, weighing himself down with 75 strokes that constitute a formidable burden he will have to carry if he is to cross the finish line in the PGA Championship first. And history is not on his side. It was the 11th time in 36 major championships as a professional that Woods has opened with a round of 74 or higher, and only once has he come back to win. And that victory came in this year's Masters, where his opening round of 74 was 2 over par, not the 5 over par of his first round at Baltusrol.
Adding to the predicament is this fact: Never in his 10 professional major victories has Woods come from behind on Sunday to win. He'd better start his stretch run sooner rather than later.
It is certainly a curiosity about Woods that -- although he already has established himself as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, front-runners of all time, virtually never blowing a lead -- he has never been the kind of come-from-behind player his explosive talent would seem to indicate he should be.
Of course, Woods' talent is of such a magnitude, and his competitive fire of such intensity, that it would be no surprise if by the time Sunday comes around he has the lead. Still, seven of the 10 previous times Woods has opened a major with a round of 74 or higher, he has finished out of the top 10. And never has he opened a major with a round as high as 5 over par.
The man has a ways to go if he is to win his third major of the year.
There is also another little historical obstacle Woods will have to overcome if he is going to win at Baltusrol: The PGA Championship has a remarkable history of producing unexpected winners. Throw out Woods and Vijay Singh, who have won four of the last six PGAs between them, and the most recent winners of this tournament are Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem, David Toms, Davis Love III, Mark Brooks and Steve Elkington. All six of them have only that single major championship in their résumé.
In fact, since the PGA Championship abandoned the match-play format in 1958, 21 winners of the tournament have been players whose only major was a PGA. That compares with 11 for both The Masters and U.S. Open during the same stretch of time, and 14 in the British Open. So at the very least, the PGA has been 50 percent more likely than any other major to produce an unexpected winner in the past 47 years.
This tournament is called "Glory's Last Shot" because it is the final major of the year, but for many it has been Glory's Only Shot, which brings us to some of the names who ended Thursday's opening round with a more preferred spot on the leaderboard than Woods'. Arjun Atwal, Chip Johnson, Ron Philo, Heath Slocum and Trevor Immelman were among those who bested Woods in the first round. It would be just like this event to serve up one of those players as the winner.
The irony in all of this is that the PGA Championship abandoned the match-play format because it was felt that the method of play was too unpredictable for television, which was just discovering sports as an entertainment vehicle. The networks didn't like the idea of televising an event in which the biggest stars very well could be eliminated before the weekend.
How many people remember that in 1953, the year Ben Hogan won The Masters, U.S. Open and British Open and then couldn't make it to the PGA, Walter Burkemo won the tournament? What both TV and PGA officials forgot, however, was that the match-play format also produced a winner's list that included Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen -- all players who would make anyone's list of the 10 Greatest Golfers Ever.
So the trade-off was Burkemo for Brooks, who holds the interesting distinction of winning the PGA Championship in 1996 and then missing the cut in all four majors the next year. The propensity of the PGA for producing one-time major winners could be explained by its placement in the schedule. Perhaps by the time we get to August the only guys still grinding are the ones who haven't already banked a billion dollars.
Certainly, the quality of the courses the tournament is played on -- and the manner in which the courses are set up -- rivals that of the other majors. In fact, Kerry Haigh of the PGA of America has emerged in recent years as one of the very best in establishing a severe test of golf that doesn't cross the line into the absurd. Perhaps it is simply appropriate that a tournament run by an organization whose constituency is club professionals should produce rank-and-file winners.
There have been 18 PGA Championships played since Jack Nicklaus stopped winning majors in 1986 and half of those have been won by guys who have only that lone major title on their résumé. During that same period of time, The Masters produced only five one-time major winners, the U.S. Open six and the British Open eight. Thursday's play at Baltusrol, during which the leaderboard was crammed with names that had fans scratching their heads in bemused wonder, seemed to be a foreshadowing of another surprise winner.
Then again, that sound we hear could be Tiger Woods shifting into a higher gear, increasing his gallop and preparing for a dramatic stretch run. Just about the only thrill Woods has denied us in his remarkable career is a stirring come-from-behind victory.
Maybe this time we will get Seabiscuit instead of Burkemo.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine
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