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PGA last chance of great 2003 for Tiger

The 85th staging of the PGA Championship, much like the entire 2003 campaign on the PGA Tour, is going to be a little stranger than most PGA Championships. The reasons vary from the course setup to the traditional favorites and even who is not showing up to play.

Most importantly and most shockingly, Tiger Woods, the 1999 and 2000 winner of this event, actually comes into the final major of 2003 without a major title. At one time he held all four major trophies at once but this year Woods has had only one good sniff at first place, the British Open last month.

While some consider it an act of lunacy to call this majorless streak, which has reached five, a "slump," something is askew in Woods' game. He lives to win major championships and despite four PGA Tour titles in 2003, any season without one of golf's big four has to be considered a disappointment. Woods has been sitting on eight major titles since Bethpage last year and one more and he's halfway to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.

The last time Woods went through an entire season without taking home one of golf's most storied titles was 1998 when his fishing buddy Mark O'Meara won the green jacket and claret jug, Lee Janzen won his second U.S. Open title and Vijay Singh claimed major No. 1 at the PGA Championship at Sahalee. If Woods can collect his third Wanamaker Trophy, he will join Walter Hagen as the only men to win a major in five consecutive seasons.

One of the glaring flaws in Woods' game over the first three majors, especially the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, was his reluctance to hit driver off the tee. Problem solved as Woods went back to his technologically inferior but personally effective Titleist driver. When he ditched the Nike driver in favor of his old Titleist, Woods, like an infant with his or her blankie, feels a new sense of comfort and strong play with the driver is essential at Oak Hill.

What makes this venue such a change is that PGA Championship courses tend to be the easiest of the four major courses. The PGA of America tries to challenge the players without trying to humiliate them. Oak Hill is very much a U.S. Open style track with the last major held here the 1989 U.S. Open, the second of back-to-back titles for Curtis Strange. It hosted the 1980 PGA Championship where Nicklaus was the only player to break par all week.

But to the modern golfer, Oak Hill is most know for hosting the 1995 Ryder Cup. American captain Lanny Wadkins had the rough grown high and the fairways tightened, a theory that Tom Fazio agreed with when he touched the club up for this major showing. Wadkins thought the accuracy of the Americans would dominate the Europeans but the fellas from the other side of the pond responded on Sunday and reclaimed the Cup.

Driving will be the key for the players this week as trees, water and even bunkers greet the players at about the 280-yard mark so accuracy and distance control are needed to win. Length won't hurt a player either as Fazio added 22 yards to the fifth bringing a creek on the right side into play. If you find yourself a few down with 17 and 18 to play, you could be in for some hard time. Each was stretched by 40 yards and play 495 yards and 480 yards, respectively.

So when looking at the contenders for this title, why not start with the man who won the U.S. Open, Jim Furyk. His ball has a radar for the fairway and now he knows how to win major titles after his breakthrough at Olympia Fields. He's an outstanding putter and after a win two weeks ago in Michigan, the man who seems to win tournaments only if Woods is in the field should be a factor at Oak Hill.

Why not look at the season's first major winner, Masters champion Mike Weir? He hits 71% of his fairways and is second on the tour in putting. Or Ben Curtis who moved up 200 some spots in the World Rankings when he tamed the best in the world to win the British Open?

When speaking about the strangeness of this major championship, the most insane aspect of it all is that the winner this week will round out the Grand Slam foursome with these three guys. Two of the gentlemen were near the cusp of greatness and Ben Curtis seems like a nice fellow, but they're major champions now and will be playing together Thursday and Friday. The last time that the four major winners were all first-timers was 1969 and history seems to indicate that will happen in '03.

Twelve of the last 15 PGA Championship winners were first-time major champions, including everyone's favorite salesmen turned golf wonderman, Rich Beem. He overcame a three-shot deficit behind Justin Leonard and handed Woods his first runner-up in a major. In 2002, Beem won the International in his start before the PGA. This year, he missed the cut.

How can we go through a paragraph about non-major winners without incorporating Phil Mickelson? His closest brush with one of the biggies was the 2001 Championship in Atlanta when David Toms sank a 12-footer to win. But 2003 is a different year all together for Mickelson. He's winless, fallen to 10th in the World Rankings for the first time since 1997 and despite a 3-0 record in his Ryder Cup debut here, if he continues to show utter contempt for hitting the fairway as opposed to 350 yards of length, it will be another year lost.

Davis Love III, the '97 winner at Winged Foot, blew through the field last Sunday at The International en route to his fourth win of the year and the top spot on the money list. A win at Oak Hill would lock up Player of the Year and add to his legacy. He played solidly at the Ryder Cup in '95 so he knows the course and has the length to handle the changes.

Among the other players that would be on the short list of contenders would be multiple winners in 2003 like Kenny Perry, who lost a playoff to Mark Brooks in '96, and former champions Singh and Toms.

Since Beem won last year and first-timers have history on their side, take a look at Peter Lonard, Stephen Leaney or Chris DiMarco, all good ball-strikers who could break into the top echelon of players on tour.

And there will be some stars not on hand this week as some foreign players are pulling out quickly. First, six-time major winner Nick Faldo withdrew because his child was born recently, Ian Woosnam left because his dad died, Nick Price pulled out to spend more time with his family and Paul Lawrie has a neck injury. Ireland's Padraig Harrington could be on the way out the door as his wife is expecting the couple's first child and the Irishman said if she goes into labor before or during the tournament, he's gone.

With all of these names and all of these prospects, who is the choice? Jim Furyk. This course is frighteningly U.S. Open-like and with the win two weeks ago at the Buick Open, he's as strong as any player coming into Oak Hill. It was just a matter of time before Furyk won and now he has the confidence to back up his No. 5 ranking in the world.

If he does it, Furyk will join Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Woods as the only other players to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year. He's ready to join that list.


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