August 9, 2009

Fitting Conclusion

In a season of unexpected results, the most unpredictable major of all is still left to play

After a 59-year-old Tom Watson challenged for the British Open title, the PGA Championship is likely to bring its own surprises.

After a 59-year-old Tom Watson challenged for the British Open title, the PGA Championship is likely to bring its own surprises.

CHASKA, Minn. -- The PGA Championship has long been the most unpredictable of majors, even if the reasons have varied. As a match-play tournament from 1916-1958, it was the major at the mercy of a volatile format, a test of endurance and patience that 1956 champion Jack Burke Jr. said was like "walking along the edge of a cliff." Now the fourth stroke-play major often played in shirt-sticking heat in August, it remains the one major impossible to figure out.

Fitting, then, that this week's PGA Championship Hazeltine National Golf Club caps off what has already been a wildly unpredictable year on the game's largest stages.

Let's review. Angel Cabrera bouncing a ball off a tree and onto the fairway in a playoff and winning the Masters? Lucas Glover rising above the muck and the mud to win the five-day U.S. Open? Stewart Cink making a clutch birdie at the 72nd hole -- watching Tom Watson miss his own clutch putt at the same hole -- and winning the British Open at 36?

If there's any deeper meaning that no one has yet attached to the first three majors of the year, it could be something we've simply missed. All three winners have a sense of humor?

At Augusta National, there was Cabrera, conking a ball off a tree in the right rough on the 18th, the first playoff hole, and watching bug-eyed as it somehow pinballed crazily back onto the fairway on his way to saving par. That could not have been expected and it was worth a chuckle. Afterwards, he celebrated his good fortune with a party at his rented house that lasted into the wee hours and didn't break up until after a smiling Cabrera hauled his green jacket out of his closet and tried it on.

Both Glover and Cink showed their cheery sides by appearing on episodes of David Letterman's show, where they read the Top 10 list. (Examples ... Glover: "Even I have never heard of me." Cink: "Most people think I sell plumbing supplies.")

The PGA Championship promises to be no laughing matter, except possibly for the winner. So now that we've arrived at Hazeltine, it's going to be important to understand how we got here. The only problem with answering is that nobody really knows. Go figure this: Tiger Woods hasn't won a major this year, but Cabrera now has his second and Glover and Cink their first.

This week, we might wind up celebrating yet another edition of the Majors' Top Coming Out Party. Since 1988, 13 players have counted the PGA Championship as their first -- or only -- major. That list includes such names as Jeff Sluman, Wayne Grady, Paul Azinger, Steve Elkington, Mark Brooks, Davis Love III, David Toms, Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel.

Lanny Wadkins won the 1977 PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, his only major title, but he wound up with 21 PGA Tour victories and a place in the Hall of Fame.

"I wouldn't trade my PGA for anything, it got me into the Ryder Cup and all I was trying to do that week was to finish in the top eight and make the Masters," said Wadkins.

But he still had to admit there is an air of uncertainty over the identity of the eventual winner at the PGA Championship more than any other major.

"It's hard to explain why some people win," Wadkins said. "The interesting thing about the PGA is that it has the strongest field of all the majors. So you should have a top player winning. If Tiger is ever going to be ready, he should be ready for Hazeltine. He'll have a lot of focus, to be sure. He's won four [now five] times, but no majors? He won't view that as a success if he hasn't won a major."

Woods is a four-time PGA Championship winner, but he lost to Beem by a shot in the 2002 PGA staged at Hazeltine. Once again, Woods will be the favorite, the same situation he's faced at the first three majors this year. Like everyone else who played Hazeltine in 2002, Woods will find it longer, stretched 330 yards to 7,685 yards; with the longest par 3 (247-yard 13th), par 4 (520-yard 12th) and par 5 (642-yard 15th) in tournament history.

How far all of this will go toward adding to the unpredictability quotient is unknown, but that's a common trait of most PGA Championships. Burke doesn't think it should matter anyway. It's not about the players, stars or otherwise, he said.

"I think we should get out of the hero business and start paying more attention to the game," he said. "But, besides, the U.S. Open is just as unpredictable, in my opinion. I mean, Jack Fleck?"

Larry Nelson won the PGA Championship in 1981 and in 1987 (when he beat Wadkins in a one-hole playoff) and also won the 1983 U.S. Open. He does not consider it unusual that players who are often left off the list of favorites actually win majors from time to time.

"Favorites are invented by the media," Nelson said. "There are just so many good players out there, I don't know any more than you can pick a favorite. Sure, there are players you think have a better chance.

"All it takes is to have a good week. Favorites don't always win. You look at the U.S. Open and the British Open, the same thing. It's just the nature of majors. Guys play good that week, they can win. We've seen it time and time again, sometimes at the PGA. Sluman, Beem, Micheel. It's just one of those things. You get some breaks, you hit fairways, good things happen. A lot of good things happen when the ball bounces your way."

Maybe it's just as simple as that. And after what we've seen so far at the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, that ball has taken some unexpected bounces in some unexpected directions. The PGA Championship might not be any different.