Strait shooting: Four hot topics on our minds

Hole No. 6 at Whistling Straits during the 2004 PGA Championship.

Hole No. 6 at Whistling Straits during the 2004 PGA Championship.

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This was supposed to be the year that Tiger Woods had a real shot at the Grand Slam. Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews fit the world’s No. 1 golfer like Sunday red. He would deal with Whistling Straits when the time came. Well, one misplaced fire hydrant scrapped that story line. Phil Mickelson’s victory at Augusta this spring brought a sense of normalcy to the game. Since then, we’ve come to embrace Graeme McDowell and enunciate Louis Oosthuizen. As golf prepares for the season’s final major, Golfweek ponders this foursome of lingering questions:

• • •

Will Tiger Woods be a dominant golfer again?

Yes, to a point, once he re-attaches his head to his body. Woods, in effect, has been Humpty Dumpty. He sat high on the wall for 13 years, had a great fall and is trying to piece everything back together. We saw signs of brilliance when he shot 66 in the U.S. Open third round. But since his sex scandal broke and family life crumbled, Woods hasn’t strung four good rounds. Missing the razor focus of his past, he has gone from Mr. All the Time to Mr. Every Now and Then.

photo

Tiger Woods had a rough inaugural ride at Whistling Straits- a T-24 at the 2004 PGA.

He’s not just another guy, for only he and Lee Westwood have finished in the top 25 in each of the first three 2010 majors. Those starts for Woods were marked by physical rust (Masters, 4th), mental errors (U.S. Open, T-4) and horrible putting (British Open, T-23). He hasn’t putted well in a major since 2008 at Torrey Pines.

As Phil Mickelson said at St. Andrews, Woods’ game will turn upward. We just don’t know when. He might get back to winning soon, given he entered August looking ahead to pet playgrounds – Firestone, TPC Boston, Cog Hill and East Lake.

Whistling Straits, the PGA Championship site, figures to be a more difficult test. Between instructors, he tied for 24th on that rugged positional course at the 2004 PGA. That is his worst major finish since 2003, other than missed cuts at the ’06 U.S. Open and ’09 British Open.

Piecing his game back together is taking time because he has gone through a self-created grinder in full view. Some who go through divorce cry in a dark corner. We can only imagine what’s going through his soul while playing through embarrassment, guilt, shame and an open checkbook. Given all that, it would surprise if he dominates like he did from July 2006 through ’09, when he won 51 percent of his Tour starts.

Jeff Rude

• • •

Is American golf past its prime?

A funny thing happened on the way to the burial for the world-class American golfer.

We discovered he’s very much alive.

Not that you would have known it by listening to all the recent talk about how Europeans in general and Englishmen specifically are poised to dominate the landscape. What fueled such talk is the fact that while four of the top five in the world are colored red, white and blue, they are 34 (Tiger Woods), 40 (Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk) and 43 (Steve Stricker), and thus that spells trouble for the U.S.

Please.

Check the world rankings from exactly 20 years ago. Only one American (Payne Stewart) was ranked in the top six, yet I can’t remember panic buttons being pushed. Maybe because 17 Americans were in the top 30 that week. There was great depth, and I suggest there still is.

Currently, 11 Americans are ranked in the top 30, including five who are 30 or younger (Anthony Kim, Sean O’Hair, Lucas Glover, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan). Each of them has won multiple times on the PGA Tour, yet what do we get all riled up about? A handful of Englishmen who either end long victory droughts or break through for their first PGA Tour wins.

OK, the Justin Rose-to-Lee Westwood-to-Graeme McDowell victory baton was handed off brilliantly in a three-week stretch in June, but earlier in the year, Americans won six consecutive Tour events. No hoopla then, nor should there be panic now.

In fact, if you wanted to give me the foursome of Kim, O’Hair, Johnson and Mahan against Rose, Luke Donald, Casey and Westwood, I like my chances to win a major first – and to earn more in a career.

Jim McCabe

• • •

Is this finally England’s time for a major?

English expectations have never been higher heading into a major. It could be time for an Englishman to relieve Nick Faldo of the tag “last Englishman to have won a major.”

Faldo’s 1996 Masters victory is England’s last major title. Back then, he was virtually the sole Englishman trying to win golf’s marquee events. Now there’s a queue of Englishmen waiting to follow him.

photo

Lee Westwood

England never has enjoyed such a rich vein of talent. Four English players occupy positions in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking: Lee Westwood (3), Luke Donald (7), Paul Casey (9) and Ian Poulter (10). Justin Rose is No. 18.

English confidence heading into the PGA is high, considering four PGA Tour titles have fallen to Englishmen this year. Rose has two wins, while Westwood and Poulter have one apiece. Donald has a win on the PGA European Tour this year. Casey is the only one of the five without a victory.

Westwood is a favorite to join Faldo in the major winners’ club. After years of underperforming in the marquee events, Westwood has top-3 finishes in five of his past 10 majors. He is coming off second-place finishes at the Masters and British Open this year.

Casey proved at the British that he is fully fit following a rib injury that hampered him last year. His T-3 at St. Andrews has given him confidence heading to Whistling Straits.

“I’m going to win a major,” Casey says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

An English-born player has won the PGA Championship. Jim Barnes did so twice. He was born in Cornwall, England, but was a U.S. citizen when he won the inaugural PGA Championship in 1916. He also won in 1919.

Westwood & Co. can make irrelevant disputes about Barnes’ nationality by becoming the first true Englishman to win.

Alistair Tait

• • •

Does this star search grow the game?

Five of the past six major championships, and nine of 15, have been won by first-time major winners. Is that good or bad for golf?

Good. Not ideal. But good, particularly for the long haul.

Ideally, you’d like to see the world’s top players dueling for a trophy every time. Give me Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson head to head in the final group ad nauseam.

Big names are the first footprint on the path to instant classics and the elevation of a sport. You could argue that boxing, for instance, hasn’t been the same since Ali-Frazier.

But the creation of new stars doesn’t hurt. Just ask the PGA Tour marketing department. In theory, based purely on numbers, the advent of fresh blood at the top enhances the chances of names going mano a mano. At any rate, it beats Woods winning by five or eight or more.

In terms of storylines, the past five first-time winners gave us something compelling.

British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen is the son of a South African dairy farmer and probably would be working the farm if not for golf. U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, barely recruited by U.S. colleges, held off future Hall of Famers Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els at Pebble Beach.

In 2009, PGA champion Y.E. Yang played David to Woods’ Goliath, Stewart Cink ruined Tom Watson’s fairy tale and Lucas Glover held off Mickelson and David Duval, among others.

The two years before them, players named Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Padraig Harrington were first-time major winners. Point is, someone on the top of the pre-tournament marquee doesn’t need to take a bow at the end for the theater to be gripping.

Jeff Rude

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