Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

New pressure for Tiger Woods at US PGA

Now 'Best player not to win major in last five years'

In form: Tiger Woods is back in business ahead of the next major challenge

The locker room at Oak Hill is packed this week with golfers who harbour ambitions of winning the PGA Championship, maybe a dozen of whom are capable of hoisting the weighty Wanamaker Trophy skywards next Sunday.

Still, one man more than any other stands between Tiger Woods and that long-awaited 15th Major title in Rochester, New York, and that's the World No 1 himself.

On the form he displayed in achieving his eighth career win at Firestone last Sunday and at Bay Hill and Torrey Pines earlier this season, if Tiger's comfortable on a golf course, he's capable once again of dominating tournaments the way he used to at the turn of the Millennium.

On Sunday, in the wake of his 18th World Championship success and 79th career victory on the US Tour, Tiger nominated St Andrews, Augusta National and Doral as three other courses which suit him.

Well, as practice for the US PGA got into full swing yesterday, there was a growing consensus that Oak Hill, however narrow its fairways or long the rough which borders them, will suit Tiger a lot better than his abject 12-over par showing here in the 2003 PGA Championship would suggest.

For a start, that fairway rough is not as punitive as it first appears. Legendary architect Donald Ross was not inclined to plant so many trees here but the club's decision to plant many thousand Oaks and other varieties has taken much of the menace out of the long grass.

In the shadow of the stentorian trees, it doesn't grow as thick as it might in the full glare of the sun ... so even if his ball nestles down in this grass, a player as strong as Tiger should have relatively little trouble playing it.

While several streams meander across the property and appear imposing on holes like the fifth and seventh or, in the case of the long 13th, where one transverses the fairway at the 300 yards mark, there's little real threat to Woods off the tee at Oak Hill.

Basically, he can hit his driver with impunity on the long, hard holes.

For sure, the rough around the greens has flourished to the point where it really is forbidding, even brutal ... yet Oak Hill's quaint old greens offer a relatively large target.

Some are tilted quite dramatically (the slope from back to front on 13 is quite pronounced, for example) but they aren't heavily contoured, making it possible in most cases to simply aim for the heart of the green.

Still, Woods yesterday argued that Oak Hill will be as tough as ever.

"Oak Hill is going to be a golf course where we're going to have to make a lot of pars, there's no doubt," said Woods, who made 16 pars, one birdie and one bogey in a subdued closing 70 on Sunday.

"If you have an opportunity to make a birdie, you'd better because there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to make them. There are a few holes that you can be aggressive on and maybe a few pin locations that, if you have the right situation, you can be pretty aggressive to it, but otherwise it's going to be a tough golf course.

"The rough was already up when I played it on Tuesday. It has another week of getting thicker and more lush. I think that it'll be a very, very difficult Championship. I forgot what the winning score was, maybe just a few under par when Shaun (Micheel) won in 2003, but it was playing hard, and I think it may be playing even harder this year."

After that visit last Tuesday, it was interesting to hear Woods complain about the relatively slow speed of the greens, which he estimated were running at about nine on the stimpmeter.

Given his complaint after each of the last five Majors that he was unable to come to grips with the slow pace of the greens and, as a result, had trouble getting his ball to the hole, Tiger's unprompted 'observation' about Oak Hill to reporters was fascinating.

Obviously, it's in the best interests of the championship and the host club that a high-profile player wins this week.

All respect to 2003 PGA Champion Micheel, whose hopes of building on that splendidly-achieved but solitary Major success were undermined when he fell ill, followed by the tragic loss of his mother to lung cancer in 2010.

Okay, nobody knew Trevino when he rolled up to Oak Hill in 1968 as his victory in the US Open that year was his first as a Tour professional.

Yet the legenday status he subsequently acquired offered rich endorsement to three of this year's Major venues, Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill, as places which gave such a great player perfect canvas upon which to express himself.

The tournament and the golf course place where Woods resumes his pursuit of the 18 Major titles won by Nicklaus, will in future decades be associated with that achievement ... making it difficult for them to ignore his stated desire for super-quick putting surfaces this week.

Yet even if he's given perfect playing conditions, Tiger must overcome one personal obstacle this week to win.

Only he can find a way to play under the pressure of that inhibiting title: "Best player not to win a Major in the past five years".

"I'm looking forward to it. As far as wanting it more than any other, no. It's the same," added Woods.

These are the events that we try and peak for and try and win."

The Irish challenge at the US PGA Championship

Northern Ireland and the Republic has feasted on a rich diet of success at the Majors since Dubliner Padraig Harrington won the 2007 Open at Carnoustie.

Holywood hero Rory McIlroy won his second Major title and Northern Ireland golf's fourth in three years at last year's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

Yet prospects do not look good for the six Irish players at this week's US PGA ... their recent form suggests Boot Hill in Tombstone might be more appropriate than Oak Hill, Rochester.

RORY McILROY (Odds: 33/1) It was folly to expect Northern Ireland double Major winner McIlroy to turn around a grim season in just four rounds at Firestone. More time and tournament play is necessary for the 24-year-old to haul himself out of the deepest slump of his career, so his chances off hanging onto the Wanamaker Trophy look slim. Yet once McIlroy regains his competitive edge, success inevitably will follow. The Tour fear their poster boy, currently 68th in the Race to Dubai, will not make the 60-man field at November's showpiece DP World Championship. They needn't worry on that count.

GRAEME McDOWELL (55/1) Since that stunning eight tournament stretch in which he won three tournaments and missed the cut in five others, Portrush star McDowell made the weekend at The Open in Muirfield and the Canadian Open, while there was no cut last weekend in Bridgestone. However, the man who now calls Orlando, Florida home man remains disconcertingly inconsistent. His accuracy off the tee should stand to G-Mac at Oak Hill but bottomless greenside rough will severely punish any loose approach play. He has the focus and will to win to challenge.

DARREN CLARKE (350/1) Northern Ireland's top-finisher in a share of 24th at the Open, the 44-year-old big Dungannon native still has the game for the big occasion, provided he can get out of his own way. Working with top American mind guru Dr Bob Rotella should help once again this week, though one wonders how Clarke's putting and temper will hold up if the greens play as fast as Tiger Woods clearly wants.

SHANE LOWRY (250/1) How different might it have been for the Clara man if he'd been able to take momentum from last October's Portugal Masters win into the DP World Championship. Instead, he ended up in hospital in Dubai with shingles, missing a fine opportunity to break into the world's elite top-50. Trying to make that transition bore down on Lowry early this year, as did unsuccessful efforts to clinch his US card. Yet, having adjusted to the speed of the greens after a difficult first two days at Firestone, Lowry's confidence-boosting 69 last Sunday suggests he could sew an acorn or two at Oak Hill.

PADRAIG HARRINGTON (125/1) The Dubliner's made just one cut in four tournaments. That it was at The Open shows he knows the ropes at the Majors, while his game's better suited to difficult course set-ups. Yet finishing 54th at Muirfield underlined his recent birdie famine. Down to 128th in FedEx Cup points, he needs to perform here and next week at Wyndham to make the 125 man Barclays field, first of the US Tour's lucrative playoffs. Harrington must play these events to get back into the World Top-50 and boost his prospects in the Ryder Cup race. It's crunch time!

PAUL McGINLEY (500/1) As Ryder Cup skipper, McGinley was invited to play in his first Major since the 2009 Open and has been paired-up with his US counterpart Tom Watson and his one-time rival for the captaincy, Darren Clarke, for the first 36 holes. In recent years, injury problems have denied McGinley the opportunity to play more frequently on Tour, while his duties as captain already are having an inevitable impact.

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