Tiger's second coming has rivals on the run
But recent form suggests McIlroy will challenge strongly at the PGA Championship
We're about to enter a new era in Major championship golf. After the remarkable happenings at Augusta National last month, an utterly changed scenario will have its unveiling in this week's 101st PGA Championship, starting on Thursday at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, New York. Maybe we should call it Tiger Mark II.
Whatever the designation, it seems appropriate it should coincide with the first May staging since this championship's match-play days in 1948 in St Louis, where Ben Hogan crushed the hapless Mike Turnesa 7 and 6 in the 36-hole final.
Comparing Woods' US Masters triumph somewhat expansively to the American moon landing - "it's where were you when, kind of stuff" - Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America, went on to describe its impact on ticket sales: "We were basically sold out for the weekend, but the requests just poured in across the board."
It will be the 20th PGA Championship appearance since 1997 for the four-time winner of the title, whose victories came in 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007. More significant, however, is that he captured the 2002 US Open at this venue, finishing a comfortable three strokes clear of his closest challenger, Phil Mickelson.
Woods will go there as only the fourth golfer to receive the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Donald Trump presented to him last Monday. He follows Arnold Palmer (2004), Jack Nicklaus (2005) and in 2014, Charlie Sifford, the man he described as "the grandfather I never had... To have been chosen as the next golfer after Charlie is truly remarkable," Woods added.
Bethpage has also special significance for Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington, who will be joined this week by Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell in a distinguished Irish quartet. "It's very difficult to make birdies out there," was the rueful comment of the Holywood star while battling to a share of 10th place behind Lucas Glover on his US Open debut at the venue in 2009.
Since then, however, he has modified his views through his experience in the FedEx Cup play-offs. "I feel like it's a course that fits my eye and when it's soft, it's right up my alley," he said last week.
Harrington had a very different Bethpage experience on Saturday, June 15 2002. For the first time in a Major championship, he found himself in the final grouping of the day, as a third-round partner to none other than the prospective champion, Woods, who shot a 70 to the Dubliner's 73.
"I can still remember the hype of it all," he later recalled. "Normally, Tiger is easy enough to play with, but being the weekend of the US Open, there were 40 to 50 cameramen down the sides of every fairway. And you had to wait for them to settle before playing a shot, which I found very off-putting." Still, Harrington managed to finish eighth, which marked the beginning for him of feeling comfortable at that level.
Despite the achievement of winning his 15th Major almost 11 years after the 14th, Woods has still to convince the many critics garnered during that period of his right to a second chance. I'm reminded of gentler times when the prince of golf writers, Pat Ward-Thomas, explored the frailty of the human condition, especially at the highest level of sporting achievement.
He wrote: "Human beings cannot be perfect all the time, although many in the public eye are often unreasonably expected to be so. It is hard therefore to criticise a famous player for having exactly the same faults as other people, without their opportunity of concealment."
In the event, the organisers decided prior to the official draw that Woods (US Masters), Brooks Koepka (US Open and PGA) and Francesco Molinari (The Open) would form a group for the first and second rounds, based on their status as the most recent winners of Major titles. And for the first time since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, El Tigre will be viewed as a leading challenger for the title, because of what he did at Augusta.
Mind you, he will no longer have the same advantage on the long, difficult parkland holes of Bethpage that he did in 2002, when the Pro V1 ball was relatively new to the market and Woods was achieving prodigious distance from the Nike equivalent. Still, as he displayed in the Masters, there can be more than ample compensation in flawless course management and shrewd decision making, especially down the stretch.
As a public golf course quaintly described as 'Everyman's Country Club', Bethpage Black is the handiwork of the celebrated American designer, AW Tillinghast. Set to stage the Ryder Cup in 2024, its overall length of 7,436 yards doesn't look to be especially long by modern standards, except when set against a par of 70.
At 517 and 608 yards respectively, the long fourth and 13th are especially interesting. The fourth looks seriously vulnerable on paper until you observe its bend to the left and a cluster of bunkers at driving distance, encouraging a three wood off the tee. A long approach then has to climb 50 feet to a heavily bunkered, elevated green.
By comparison, the 13th is fairly straightforward and reachable in two, depending on the firmness of the fairway. Come up short, however, and there's cross-bunkers 30 yards from the target and a bunker to the right of the green which is among the deepest on the course. As a reflection of clever design, there are only 78 bunkers in all, but they are not of the pot variety, as indicated by eight acres of sand.
They say that the only people who scoff at experience are those who don't have it. In which context, Woods is well capable of taking care of himself among the current crop of Major challengers. One suspects that players like McIlroy, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth, along with Molinari, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose among the older campaigners, will be eyeing his movements a lot more closely than he will be concerning himself about them.
Looking at McIlroy making a mess of the long 10th at Quail Hollow last Sunday, when he took five to get down from 15 yards short of the flag, you wondered whatever has happened to the low running shot around the green. Everything is executed with the almighty wedge these days.
"I was sort of in between two wedges a little bit and sort of trying to get used to playing everything with a 60 again," was McIlroy's explanation. Apparently he had put a 64-degree wedge in his bag for the Masters and subsequently changed back to one of 60 degrees. "Around the greens and on the green is probably the focus going into Bethpage," he added, by way of highlighting the nature of his homework at the Bear's Club later last week.
Recent form would suggest that McIlroy will challenge strongly. It also points to unpredictability, however, especially on the final day. We know the talent is there. Less certain, however, is whether it will be accompanied by a winning mood.
Having celebrated his 30th birthday last Saturday, he is aiming for a third PGA Championship win, just as Nicklaus did as a 33-year-old in 1973. In that season, the Bear played 17 PGA Tour events of which he won seven and was 13 times in the top six. By capturing the PGA at Canterbury CC on August 12, he secured his 14th Major (counting two US Amateurs), surpassing the previous targets set by Bobby Jones.
From 15 PGA Tour events in 2006, 30-year-old Woods had eight victories, a second and a third, and retained The Open crown at Hoylake. A third PGA Championship a month later, brought his Major haul to 12.
Consigned to history until relatively recently, these achievements have suddenly been infused with new life. In the process, they give promise of spirited tussles to come, as eager pretenders attempt to deny Woods the dominance he once enjoyed virtually unchallenged.
Sunday Indo Sport