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Players gear up for PGA Championship

Tiger Woods goes into this week's PGA Championship as red-hot favorite to win the title for a fourth time, although lovers of golfing trivia might prefer a different outcome.

Should a first-time major winner triumph at Southern Hills on Sunday, he would complete only the second sweep of the grand slam events by breakthrough champions in 38 years.

American Zach Johnson held off Woods to win the Masters, Argentina's Angel Cabrera claimed the U.S. Open at Oakmont and Irishman Padraig Harrington edged out Spaniard Sergio Garcia in a playoff for last month's British Open.

Four first-timers have not hogged the season's majors since 2003 when Canadian Mike Weir took the Masters, Jim Furyk the U.S. Open, Ben Curtis the British Open and Shaun Micheel the PGA Championship.

Of all the majors in recent times, the PGA attracts the strongest field and yet has been the most likely to throw up a surprise winner.

The championship was won in consecutive years by unheralded Americans Rich Beem (2002) and Micheel, underlining that any player is capable of victory if his game is on song.

Yet it is very difficult to look past the remarkable Woods as he bids to win his 13th career major and ensure he ends this season with at least one grand slam title.

The world number one, fresh from a runaway victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday, is in prime form and few would bet against the American completing a successful defense at Southern Hills Country Club.

He clinched last year's title by five shots at Medinah to lift his major tally to 12, leaving him six short of the record 18 posted by his childhood idol Jack Nicklaus.

"You never want to be shut out," Woods said. "You never want to have a year where you don't win a major championship.

"This year I've come close in two, and it just didn't happen," he added, referring to his joint runner-up spots at the Masters and U.S. Open. "But I've been in this situation before."

After struggling with his ball-striking in last month's British Open at Carnoustie, Woods appears to be back to his best.

"I feel I made some nice strides this week," he said on Sunday at Firestone Country Club after clinching his 58th PGA Tour title. "I feel very good going into the PGA, getting a few days to prepare and getting adjusted, and off we go."

Ever meticulous in his preparation for the majors, Woods visited Southern Hills early last week to assess the course changes made since Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open there in 2001.

"The re-design has been good," he said of a par-70 layout stretched by 158 yards to 7,131.

"I think all the players will really like it. The rough is not as high as it was in '01. The only difference is the fairways are narrower than they were in '01.

"I always found it to be just an extraordinary golf course and one difficult test," added Woods, who tied for 12th in the 2001 Southern Hills U.S. Open.

"It really tests your ability to shape shots. You have to maneuver the golf ball both ways, and you also have to hit it different trajectories, which is great."


August 7, 2007

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