Expect 'rough' times, few birdie chances at Oakland Hills
Looking for lots of birdies at the PGA? Stop right there. The year's final major has the worst field of all the big ones? Wrong again. Jason Sobel will set you straight on a few Myths & Truths from Oakland Hills.
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- It's that time again when we belly up to the bar at the 19th hole while Bobby Bigtime tells you everything you always wanted to know about the PGA Championship (but were afraid to ask).Problem is, Mr. Bigtime isn't always right. In fact, he's often totally wrong. So, let's clear up a few common myths and misconceptions based on what's being discussed leading into the year's final major championship. "Unlike the first three majors, at least we'll get to see plenty of birdies this week!"
MYTH. Bobby is either living in the past or taking the Weekly 18 for gospel. (Before getting on-site, the W18 staff deduced that the winning score would be below that of the Masters, which finished at 8-under. Mulligan, please!) Over the past 10 years, PGA champions have averaged 10.5-under for 72 holes. However, listening to players coming off the course after practice rounds, you'll find that most believe this week's winner won't come within 10 strokes of that number. "I think over-par's going to win. I really do," said Kenny Perry, who has made the cut in 16 of 17 PGA appearances. "I think this golf course is a big, tough test." More than a few players have mentioned the fact that after this year's feel-good U.S. Open at Torrey Pines -- during which nearly every participant had positive things to say about the setup of the golf course -- the year's second and fourth majors seem to have switched identities. "No way! The rough won't be nearly as penalizing this week at it usually is at the U.S. Open!"
MYTH. Yes way. Granted, at 2½ inches it may not be as long as the secondary cut we're used to seeing at the Open, but the words "dense" and "thick" have been on everybody's lips so far this week. A sampling of some players' thoughts on the long grass: Trevor Immelman: "The rough seems pretty dense, pretty thick. If you hit it in the rough, it's almost impossible to get the ball onto the green from the rough. So the guy who drives the ball the straightest here is definitely going to have a huge advantage." Padraig Harrington: "I think this golf course is set up more like what a U.S. Open was set up three or four years ago, where missing the fairway by a couple of yards is the same as missing it by 10 yards. As in there is no difference once you go off: There's no first cut, second cut, third cut of rough." Jim Furyk: "The rough is very, very thick. It's not extremely long, but it's very thick and tough to play out of. So put a premium on hitting the ball in the fairway." OK, well if the rough is that thick, then an accurate driver is going to win, right?
MYTH. Or TRUTH. Heck, if we knew, we'd tell you. There are always two schools of thought on which type of player thrives on courses with thick rough. The first theory states that those who keep it straight will have an obvious advantage because they're hitting off more fairways. The second claims that everyone is going to find the fairway at some point anyway, so it's more important to be long off the tee. These players will be hitting shorter irons into the greens -- a huge advantage when chopping out of the thick stuff. Let's split the difference. If a player can hit it long and straight, then he'll be in business. "The Europeans played so well there at the 2004 Ryder Cup that one of them should be expected to win!"
MYTH. When no player born on your continent has won a given tournament in 78 years, nothing is "expected." Besides, this isn't exactly the same course that was played in '04. It will play some 400 yards longer this week, with more than half of the tee boxes moved back in order to lengthen the holes. "It's a lot tougher than it was at the Ryder Cup," said Sergio Garcia, who finished 4-0-1 that week when the Euros demolished Team USA 18½- 9½. "Obviously, the rough is thicker. They have added some good length. Bunkers are a little bit deeper. So it's definitely playing tougher than it was at the Ryder Cup." Even good memories don't necessarily help the ol' confidence level around here. "I was just kind of focusing on this week and not what happened in the past on the golf course," Lee Westwood, who also went 4-0-1 at that Ryder Cup, said after a Tuesday practice round. "Only probably the 18th green where I stopped sort of preparing for this week's tournament and I just said to my caddie, 'Do you remember that putt that Sergio holed there?' And it was only because he nearly hit me with the putter when he tossed it up in the air -- that's the only reason I remember that." Tommy Armour, who was a U.S. citizen at the time of his 1930 victory but was born in Scotland, may not remain as the last Euro-born player to win the PGA by week's end, but none of his current brethren should be favored to win here, either. "With 20 club pros in the mix, this field is the worst of the four majors!"
MYTH. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Masters annually invites only about 60 players who have a fighting chance of winning. The U.S. Open and British Open are, well, open, meaning that some talented players are left out while others catch lightning in a bottle and reach the field. Meanwhile, after those 20 club pros, the PGA of America extends invitations to the best of the best. What we're left with is a field that includes 93 of the world's top 100 ranked players. "Just because Tiger Woods isn't playing doesn't mean this one isn't worth watching!"
TRUTH. Hey, Bobby Bigtime finally got one right! If we learned anything during last month's British Open, it's that golf can still survive without the No. 1-ranked player. There are some who will say the game is more compelling without Woods in the mix. That might be a stretch, but the outcome is certainly less predictable. And definitely worth watching.
Jason Sobel is a golf columnist and blogger for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
90th PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
Yardage; Par: 7,395 yards; par 70
2008 champion: Padraig Harrington
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