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PGA may produce another surprise winner

Just about anything is possible at this week's U.S. PGA Championship, the last of the year's four majors and the one that has produced more than its fair share of surprise winners in the past.

World number one Tiger Woods, U.S. Masters champion Phil Mickelson, 1998 winner Vijay Singh and three-times major champion Ernie Els head the list of obvious contenders for the prestigious Wanamaker Trophy.

However, based on recent history in major championships and the deepening quality of players in the modern game, virtually anyone in the 156-strong field has a chance of winning.

Americans Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem, the last two U.S. PGA champions, were ranked well outside the world's top 50 when they upset the odds.

Micheel was ranked 169th at Oak Hill last year when he became the seventh player to clinch the tournament at the first attempt, sealing his shock victory with a brilliant seven-iron approach to two inches at the last.

Twelve months earlier, Beem was the world number 73 and playing in only his fourth major tournament when he held off a charging Woods in the final round at Hazeltine National.

Beem, who had quit golf to become a salesman, became the 12th player in 15 years to make the U.S. PGA championship his first major victory.

American outsider Todd Hamilton continued the trend for surprise victories at last month's British Open and became the seventh first-time winner in the last eight majors, stretching back to Beem's 2002 victory at Hazeltine.

Mickelson, who made a long-awaited major breakthrough at the Masters in April, does not rule out another unlikely champion this week at Whistling Straits.

"Ball-striking is stressed this week and I wouldn't be at all surprised if one of the guys that you didn't look at and expect to do well didn't win on Sunday," said the American left-hander.

However, a few of the established golfing heavyweights are certain to be involved when the tournament reaches its climax on Sunday.

Woods, although no longer the dominant figure of four years ago, liked his chances.

The world number one said he was experiencing the same level of anticipation he felt in early 1999, shortly before he embarked on a remarkable run of seven major victories in 11 starts.

"Things are starting to come together and it's very exciting, just like it was when they were starting to gel towards the end of '98 and the beginning of '99," said the 28-year-old American, U.S. PGA champion in 1999 and 2000.

Woods became the youngest player, at 21, to win the U.S. Masters in 1997 but he and his former coach Butch Harmon decided to revamp his swing the following year, setting their sights on longer term benefits in the major championships.

Although Woods failed to win another major in his next 10 starts, their bold move eventually proved successful. He clinched the 1999 U.S. PGA Championship at Medinah, a victory that heralded one of the most dominant runs in the game's history.

In the last two years, though, his monopoly at the top of the global pecking order has come under growing threat, with second-ranked Els and twice major winner Singh, the world number three, snapping at his heels.

Either Els or Singh could replace Woods as the game's number one by the end of this week.

South African Els has contended strongly at all three majors this year while Fijian Singh, the golf's form player over the last 13 months, is a hot favourite at Whistling Straits following his stylish victory at the Buick Open two weeks ago.

Other likely contenders include Mickelson, who has produced top-three finishes in this year's majors, 1997 winner Davis Love III, Ireland's Padraig Harrington and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.

History is against Harrington and Garcia, though, as no European has won the title since Scotland-born Tommy Armour beat Gene Sarazen by a hole at Fresh Meadows in 1930, when the championship was contested on a match-play basis.

Whoever does win the 86th U.S. PGA Championship will have to putt exceptionally well on the large, undulating greens.

He will also need to be a big hitter, as the brutal links-style Straits Course, measuring 7,514 yards, is the longest venue in major championship history.

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