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Rain soaked Oak Hill will get tougher

Rain spent the past two weeks softening up Oak Hill. Now we'll see whether Tiger Woods and the rest of the world's best players can take advantage.

The 85th PGA Championship opens Thursday with several questions. The most intriguing was whether the long hitters, with their fancy drivers and high-tech golf balls, could put a dent into a 77-year-old course that tested the likes of Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus and, most recently, was the site of the 1995 Ryder Cup.

As much as softer fairways and greens work to the players' advantage, the task at Oak Hill has always been about keeping the ball in play.

And that remains the challenge on a 7,100-yard, par-70 course that features thick rough, lining fairways that are an average of 23 yards wide.

Play was scheduled to begin with the two opening threesomes teeing off at 7:30 a.m. The two most anticipated groups of the day feature this year's three major champions, Mike Weir (Masters), Jim Furyk (U.S. Open) and Ben Curtis (British Open), scheduled to begin at 8:50 a.m., followed by Woods, defending champion Rich Beem and David Toms.

Despite the rain, Oak Hill continues to impress both newcomers and veterans.

"Every time I come here I just think, driving first. If I can drive the ball into the fairway, I'll do all right," veteran Tom Watson said on Wednesday. "It's long, wet and it will provide a great test of golf."

Justin Rose, who was 11 days old when Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, agreed.

"I think the only saving grace right now is the fact that the greens are relatively soft," Rose said.

Enjoy it while you can.

The rains subsided Tuesday, and the forecast calls for sun and mid-80 degree temperatures through the weekend, setting the stage for the final major of what has been a highly competitive season.

It's a year which has featured eight multiple PGA Tour winners, led by Woods and Davis Love III, with four each. And it's a season in which the player of the year award is up for grabs.

By Sunday, plenty of questions will be answered, including: whether Woods can win his first major in six tries, and ninth of his career; whether a European can become the first to win a PGA Championship since Tommy Armour in 1930; or if this will unveil the year's fourth first-time major winner.

The tournament has traditionally favored first-time major winners, 44 in all, the most recent Beem at Hazeltine last year.

But Oak Hill has been a course for veterans, where Hogan finished second to Cary Middlecoff in the 1956 U.S. Open, Lee Trevino won the 1968 U.S. Open, Nicklaus won the 1980 PGA and Curtis Strange won the 1989 U.S. Open.

Watson, who has played Oak Hill twice, was eager to make a prediction, saying, "I would suspect that Tiger Woods is going to break his slump this week."

His reasoning is that Woods is usually long and straight off the tee and is one of the few to have the strength to power a ball out of the rough.

Watson also guessed that the winning score would be 5 under, with only three players finishing under par.

That would be fine with course superintendent Paul Latshaw, concerned about how the rain will effect play.

"It's one of those things you just don't know," Latshaw said. "We've done a lot of preparations, a lot of architectural changes. You just don't know. I'm very, very interested to see what happens in the next four days."


 

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