Golf: Medinah the status symbol

Bruce Critchley says the fourth major is making up lost ground
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GOLF'S SEASON of major championships is almost over and this week at the US PGA there is a sense of comfort that at last we have one running along normal lines.

After the introduction of rough and new trees at Augusta, it seemed the United States Golf Association had gone soft for the US Open at Pinehurst by cutting the long grass and widening the fairways. That produced undoubtedly the best championship of the year, in sad contrast to our own Open, where the normally astute and sensible minds of the Royal & Ancient rather misjudged their preparation of Carnoustie and came up with something of a monster.

Ultimate proof of having got things right is the style and quality of the winner. This year Jose Maria Olazabal and Payne Stewart ensured that Augusta and the USGA leave the 20th Century with reputations intact; while the R & A has a little ground to make up after the Paul Lawrie-Jean Van de Velde double act in Scotland.

Even so, all three events still possess a status and position that the US PGA Championship has long struggled to match. Forty years ago it ceased to be the matchplay major and so forfeited its mark of individuality. The Masters has always had Augusta, the US Open the high ground of America's grand old clubs and courses, while our Open has always been played over true links.

In recent years the PGA have sought to improve their image by also going to established US Championship venues, but by not setting the same austere test as the US Open the US PGA have often seemed little more than a limited edition print in comparison with an original watercolour.

But quality winners remain the acid test. Matchplay was abandoned primarily because, post-war, it kept throwing up a modest champion. It seemed a sound move when in the next 20 years Jack Nicklaus won half a dozen US PGA titles, Gary Player a couple and all the big names of the day one or more apiece. More recently, though, there has been a worrying return to mediocrity.

Often it has looked as though the really big names, having given their all in the two mid-summer Opens, have run out of fuel by the time of the PGA. This year, though, perhaps because so many were knocked over early in Carnoustie, there seems greater quality among the contenders for the season's final championship.

Especially encouraging has been the European performance. All too often the cream of our crop has wilted in the presence of American's finest, particularly in their own back yard. This time, though, we have several in contention and as we have seen at the Masters outright victory is more often achieved from strength in depth rather than the lone marauder tilting against the mass ranks of American stars.

All of which augurs well for the Ryder Cup at Brookline. Rumour has it that Ben Crenshaw has specified a fair, sporting layout, which is what Medinah has been. Both are traditional American parkland settings. An encouraging number of Europeans are doing well, while the Americans have been increasingly embroiled in a commercial slanging match from which no one emerges well.

A European may or may not win today but they should at least leave Chicago in upbeat mood. The US PGA may no longer be the matchplay major but the Ryder Cup surely is, albeit in a team context, and it comes at a time of year when there is certainly room for one more great golfing event.