5 Things: Focus will finally be on Tiger's game

Tiger Woods hits a drive on the 14th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Five things you need to know before the start of the 93rd PGA Championship:

1. Tiger tracks: Like him or loathe him, he still drives the narrative. Starting Thursday, thankfully, the talk can focus on his play and not his acrimonious split with caddie Steve Williams. While he remained diplomatic in talking about his former looper, Woods was photographed at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday practicing alone on the range at Atlanta Athletic Club. Does he have added motivation because of Stevie, because of Rory, because of his critics? Or is he desperately searching for something before play begins?

The most interesting comment Tiger made Wednesday -- aside from saying he texted Williams after Adam Scott’s Bridgestone win -- was that he still would view 2011 as a success even without a victory. When, if ever, has that been the case? More important, Woods said, was finishing the season healthy. On Tuesday, he warmed up on the range, played nine holes at AAC, then returned to the practice tee for more work. He hasn’t been able to do that for months.

“My feels are starting to come back,” Woods said. “I’ve been away from the game for a while, but I’m starting to get the feel of hitting shots and how far the ball is going and just getting more and more target awareness that comes from playing in tournament golf.”

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2. Hanging on: Two watery par 3s. Two brutal par 4s. Welcome to the closing stretch at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Said Woods: “I don’t think there’s another stretch that I can remember that is this difficult coming in.”

Let’s start with the par-3 15th, on the card at 265 yards. In the third round of the 2001 PGA, David Toms aced this hole with a 5-wood on his way to the title. Yes, it plays slightly downhill. And yes, the ball is flying because of the heat. But reaching the putting surface requires anything from a fairway wood to a 4-iron. The safe play is to hit the front-left part of the green and, hopefully, two-putt for par.

The par-4 16th, measuring 476 yards, is long, uphill, narrow. The approach, again, is with a long-iron or rescue club, is semi-blind, and features a green that isn’t all that receptive.

The 207-yard, par-3 17th plays downhill, which makes judging the distance even trickier. Having two par 3s in the final four holes can wreak havoc if the wind starts swirling.

And this is the most talked-about hole on the course: the 507-yard, par-4 finishing hole. Some players use driver, but an errant shot brings water into play on the left and bunkers on the right. Luke Donald, a short hitter, says he has to hit 3-wood because of the trouble, leaving him a 225-yard approach to a green guarded by water short and bunkers long.

“You need to hit two very good golf shots,” said Martin Kaymer, the defending PGA champ.

In 2001, Toms chose to lay up with his second shot, then sank a 15-foot par putt to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot. Last year, at Whistling Straits, another course that closes with a punishing par 4, Kaymer gouged out of the right rough, short of the creek, and pitched on to outlast Bubba Watson in the three-hole playoff at the PGA.

“I would rather play the last four holes at Whistling Straits,” Kaymer said. “They are a lot more difficult here.”

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3. In defense: Speaking of Kaymer, the 26-year-old German comes into the year’s final major searching for the form that saw him ascend to No. 1 in the world. Since hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy last August, Kaymer has won only once -- the Abu Dhabi Championship in January -- while falling from first to third in the world ranking.

Part of that can be attributed to a few swing changes. Kaymer attempted to shorten and flatten his backswing. Last month, he showed signs of improved play with a fourth in France and a solid performance at the Open Championship, where he opened 68-69 to move into contention before fading on the weekend.

Of his swing changes, Kaymer said: “I can still play a lot better, and once it all comes together, I think I can play even better than before, even better than when I became No. 1 in the world.”

During the PGA Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, Kaymer served the typical German Christmas dinner: goose, red cabbage and knodel (a dumpling).

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4. Mind games: Using a tactic that seemed to work last month for Phil Mickelson, World No. 2 Lee Westwood hopes a renewed, upbeat attitude will help him land his elusive major title.

At last month’s Open Championship, Mickelson said he wanted to forget his past futile attempts and embrace links golf. The result was an inspiring runner-up finish.

Westwood, with three top-3 finishes in the past seven majors, said that in the past he’s put too much pressure on himself to perform in majors. Asked to explain his new approach with Dr. Bob Rotella, he said: “You know, you can get yourself into the position, but when you get into those positions, just enjoy it and have a free, clear mind and play like it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “You know, just laugh and have fun out there.”

Simply, he is striving to be more light-hearted, more relaxed, more buoyant.

Said Luke Donald, No. 2 in the world and also searching for his first major: “You know, majors in this day and age are made out to be the biggest deal. Sometimes you can go to these events and just try too hard.”

Asked if he, too, has been guilty of that, Donald replied: “For sure. There’s more pressure. You feel a little bit more uptight, and sometimes it’s harder to let it go and just play the way you know how to play. But it’s very hard. There’s a hard balance between not trying and obviously putting in some effort to give it your best. It’s a fine line.”

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5. Intriguing pairings: Here are some groups to watch Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club. (Note: TNT Sports begins coverage at 1 p.m. EDT. All times listed below at EDT)

No. 1 tee, 1:05 p.m.: Anthony Kim, Ernie Els, Jhonattan Vegas. AK has shown signs of life in the past month, with a T-5 (Open) and T-14 (Greenbrier) in two of his past three starts. Atlanta Athletic Club should set up nicely for long-hitting Els and Vegas, if they can find the fairway.

No. 1 tee, 1:25 p.m.: Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia. Wouldn’t surprise if all three players performed well this week. AAC is tailor-made for a guy of DJ’s length, while Fowler and, yes, even Garcia seem poised to break through at some point this season.

No. 1 tee, 1:45 p.m.: Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke. The traditional pairing of the year’s major winners. Rory is one of the favorites this week, Schwartzel always seems to play well in big events, and Clarke, though fatigued, will try to rekindle the magic from Royal St. George’s.

No. 10 tee, 7:55 a.m.: Matteo Manassero, Ryo Ishikawa, Adam Scott. After his rousing win in Akron, many like Scott this week in Atlanta. Ryo had a chance to win last week, too, but threw it away on Sunday.

No. 10 tee, 8:35 a.m.: Davis Love III, Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington. Quite simply, can Tiger salvage a lost season?

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