KIAWAH ISLAND — It wasn’t that long ago when it was relatively easy to predict the winner of a major championship.
Tiger Woods and a few of his cohorts made it fairly simple.
Woods won 13 of 37 major championships through the 2008 season, and in that same time span Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh all won multiple titles totaling 10 more trophies.
But beginning with Harrington’s third victory in six majors at the 2008 PGA Championship – he and Woods combined to win five of those six events – 16 different players have won the past 16 majors.
It’s the first time in more than two decades that has happened, and Ernie Els’ win at last month’s British Open ended a streak of nine consecutive first-time major winners.
Picking a winner has become the equivalent of a game of Where’s Waldo.
So we go into Thursday’s opening round of the 94th PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course with some favorites, but a lot more uncertainty.
“Golf is getting deep,” said Woods, whose fall from grace both on and off the course beginning in late 2009 opened the door for the current parity. “There are so many guys with a chance to win. I think that’s kind of how the sport is. The margin is getting smaller.
“… The scores between the leader and the guy who is 70th [through two rounds], sometimes it’s 10 shots or less, which is amazing. The margins are so small, and hence if you’ve got margins that are that small, you’re going to get guys who win once here and there.”
Recent major champions have been everything from repeat winners to solid players who were due to shockers.
Repeat winners include Mickelson and Els, who captured his fourth major title at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Players who were arguably deserving of their first major include Stewart Cink, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy.
Shockers include Y.E. Yang and defending PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who won last year at Atlanta Athletic Club as a rookie in his very first major. “It’s an unbelievable thing to look back on,” Bradley said. “I have a very hard time watching the replay. I really can’t. I get too nervous; I get uncomfortable.”
Predicting a winner even after 54 holes hasn’t been easy this year. Masters winner Bubba Watson began the final round three shots behind Peter Hanson, made four consecutive birdies on the back nine and beat Oosthuizen in a playoff with a miraculous shot from the trees.
U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson was four shots behind Jim Furyk and McDowell entering the final round and never led on Sunday until he was in the clubhouse and Furyk bogeyed the 16th hole.
Els was six shots behind Adam Scott through three rounds and still four down before Scott bogeyed his final four holes and Els birdied the 18th.
“We practice, we dream all our lives and we hit golf balls for hours and hours and hours all our lives to put ourselves in those scenarios, but they are uncomfortable,” said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner who has tied for 12th, second and fifth in the year’s first three majors. “They are not enjoyable. You are very scared, mainly of kind of messing it up.”
Adding to the uncertainty of the first major ever held in South Carolina is the vaunted Ocean Course. It was named by Golf Digest as the most difficult course in the U.S., and few players have any useful experience playing it in competition.
Though the Ocean Course’s dunes and remote location don’t provide an ideal venue for the championship in terms of logistics or spectator viewing, 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover believes Pete Dye’s layout that opened just in time to host the 1991 Ryder Cup is suited for a major. “I think it’s built just for it,” Glover said.
The PGA of America will have an impact on the tournament in the way they set up the course. It can play up to a daunting 7,700 yards at sea level, and wind gusts are forecast to reach 20 to 30 mph all four days of play.
“It’ll be interesting how they set up the golf course because it could play really long or they could move it up and have us have a go at it,” said Woods, who has three wins this year and is seeking his 15th major title and first since the 2008 U.S. Open.
The Ocean Course looks like a British Isles links course with the adjacent ocean and its dunes and wind-blown native grasses, but it doesn’t necessarily play like a links course, and intermittent rain throughout practice rounds has softened the course a bit.
“I kind of describe it as a links course through the air,” said McDowell, a Northern Ireland native. “When it blows here the wind is a massive factor, you know, strength and direction. But it certainly doesn’t play linksy along the ground. Aesthetically it looks linksy, but the runoff areas … are very soft and they don’t bump and run like a links golf course does.”
The Ocean course is also the first major championship venue to feature Seashore Paspalum grass on its greens, which is the grass featured at Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach.
Only players unfortunate enough to have played in either the Mayakoba Classic or Puerto Rico Open in the past few years while other more lucrative tournaments were simultaneously being contested will be familiar with it on tour.
The winner come Sunday is anyone’s guess.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.