WASHINGTON — With a list of potential major winners unprecedented in depth and doubts over whether Tiger Woods will ever regain his former dominance, this week’s PGA Championship is wide open for the taking.
Ninety-eight of the world’s top 100 golf players have assembled at Atlanta Athletic Club for tomorrow’s opening round and you can bet that at least a handful will go on to deliver their “A” games in pursuit of the season’s last shot at major glory.
Remarkably, there have been nine first-time winners in the last 10 majors with Phil Mickelson’s emotional victory at the 2010 Masters the sole exception.
The golfing landscape has become increasingly global in recent years and players from countries ranging from Ireland and Fiji to Zimbabwe and South Korea can boast winners in the year’s final major.
“Everybody out here has the ability to put it together for a week and when that week comes around, they can be unbeatable,” said Britain’s Justin Rose, a double winner on the PGA Tour.
“The strength and depth out here now is very, very strong.”
Woods, who has claimed four PGA Championship titles, has been a shadow of his former self while battling injuries and trying to rebuild his golf swing and his private life following the breakup of his marriage.
He made his long-awaited PGA Tour return after three months on the sidelines at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational where he tied for 37th after displaying erratic form.
Having not competed on the US circuit since the Players Championship in May when he withdrew after just nine holes, Woods said he was “absolutely encouraged” ahead of this week.
“I’ve just got to keep playing,” the former world No 1 told reporters after signing off with a level-par 70 at Firestone Country Club. “It’s just something that comes over time of just playing and getting the feel for it.”
Asked whether one more tournament under his belt would have been desirable before this week’s PGA Championship, Woods replied: “It would be nice, but hey, I’ve got three days.
“So I’m going to worry about these three days, apply it accordingly and be ready come Thursday (tomorrow).”
The days of Woods intimidating his rivals going into any major championship are, at least for the moment, over.
He has not won a major since the 2008 US Open nor any tournament worldwide since 2009 and the aura of dominance he once enjoyed is either forgotten or has never been experienced by some of the emerging young talents in the game.
Last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational provided a glimpse into the likely face of golf’s future with 19-year-old Japanese Ryo Ishikawa, American Rickie Fowler (22), Australian Jason Day (23) and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy (22), all challenging for the title.
World No 4 McIlroy has already made a major mark on the game, winning the US Open in record style by a staggering eight shots at Congressional in June.
That performance has certainly encouraged many of his peers, just as he was motivated by the US Open victory of his compatriot Graeme McDowell at Pebble Beach the year before.
“When Graeme won last year, it made me realise that winning a major championship was achievable, attainable, said McIlroy.
“To see a great friend like that win a major, it only inspires you. It inspires you to go out and emulate them. And funny enough, I was able to do that.”
Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who won last year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in a playoff with American left-hander Bubba Watson, expects the par-70 Atlanta Athletic Club layout to provide a daunting challenge this week.
“It’s about ball-striking here,” the German said. “The rough will be thick … it will be difficult.”
Of all the majors in recent times, the PGA attracts the strongest field and yet it has often been the most likely to throw up a surprise winner.
The championship was won in consecutive years from 2002 by unheralded Americans Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel, underlining that any player is capable of victory.
Whoever ends up lifting the prized Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday will have coped best with one of golf’s toughest challenges. — Reuters