Golf: Tide of emotion will be with brave Azinger: Faldo has the game plan to deny America's challenge for honours at hot and humid Southern Hills course

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The Independent Online
THE US PGA, otherwise known as the blast furnace championship, is as much a test of durability in the heat of battle as of shot-making, and the winner will need to be lined with asbestos. The man who lifts the enormous Wanamaker Trophy is usually American, and this week they are desperate for a US citizen to succeed. A Spaniard, a South African and a Zimbabwean have won the first three majors, and the Americans have never felt so deprived.

Still, they can usually rely on the US PGA, the last of the big four and traditionally the most maligned, to come up with a dramatic finish. The weather, with temperatures hovering around the 100-degree mark, usually has something to do with it, but this year the field, for the first time, includes the entire top 40 in the current world rankings. It also includes 40 humble club professionals.

Invariably, the leaderboard at some stage will read something like Maggert, Funk, Zabriski, Pride. About the only man who can be ruled out with any confidence is Gene Pitney, on the grounds that he is still 24 hours from Tulsa. This is the championship which 12 months ago produced an emotional winner in Paul Azinger.

Azinger, runner-up to Nick Faldo in the Open at Muirfield in 1987, won his first major by defeating Greg Norman in a play-off at the Inverness club in Toledo, Ohio.

Azinger has spent the last year fighting cancer and has been so successful that he is able to defend his title here this week. This morning Azinger tees off with two other former champions, Payne Stewart and Larry Nelson. It goes without saying that there is nothing the US PGA, in conjunction with Walt Disney productions, would like better than to see Azinger win again.

The American success story has been interrupted only twice in the last 20 years, by the Australians, David Graham, in 1979, and Wayne Grady in 1990. At Crooked Stick in Indiana in 1991 we had the most extraordinary winner of all in John Daly. Ninth reserve, Daly straightened out Crooked Stick with a macho display of power driving. That was when he was drinking bars dry. Crooked Stick, very hot and very long, was made for Daly.

Southern Hills is very hot but not very long and Daly, notwithstanding the fact that his back is giving him trouble, does not have the game or the patience to survive here. Faldo does. Just as Nick Price felt he was owed an Open Championship, Faldo, one of 16 Europeans here, believes it is about time he met his Wanamaker. Faldo was third behind Azinger and Norman last year and joint second behind Price the year before at Bellerive.

Just as we have had no American winner of the big ones this year, we have had no Faldo presence on the leaderboard. 'Something's going to come right sooner or later,' Faldo said yesterday. 'It's a very fine line. If I can get a bit of momentum going, I'll be away.' The fine line was drawn at the 17th hole in the Open at Turnberry: Faldo took a triple- bogey eight there in the first round, which included a two-stroke penalty for hitting the wrong ball. It effectively killed his challenge. Price had an eagle three at the same hole in the last round, which effectively won him the championship.

Southern Hills is Faldo's kind of course. The premium is on accuracy. The course has more dog-legs than Cruft's but Faldo will only be rewarded if he can recapture his putting touch. The reason he has gone backwards this year is solely down to his erratic form on the greens.

Bernhard Langer is another fan of Southern Hills and he, too, can be expected to have a profitable week. 'It's a wonderful lay-out and there isn't an easy hole on the course,' Langer said. 'It's very tough but fair. It's a very good test of golf.' The harder the course, the better Langer likes it.

Colin Montgomerie, on the other hand, can hardly stand the place. 'The greens are slow and they're already beginning to spike up pretty badly,' big Monty said. 'The conditions are not what you'd expect of a major, especially in America. I am not impressed. Nothing excites me about it. Every hole looks similar.'

If Faldo's weakness has been with the putter, Jose-Maria Olazabal's has been with the driver. At Turnberry the Masters champion was so confused he had seven drivers with him on the practice ground. A good sign here is that he brought only two with him. Ernie Els, the US Open champion, should not be backed with any confidence. Els has been unwell since arriving here and his practice rounds have been curtailed.

Last night Arnold Palmer received the PGA Distinguished Service Award, but the only problem is that he has never won their championship. He thought he had won it at Southern Hills in 1970 but Dave Stockton pipped him. At the age of 64, Palmer is playing in his 37th consecutive PGA Championship - and his last. 'I never say never but I don't intend to play in any more,' he said. 'The PGA has been very nice in granting me a lifetime exemption and I don't want to abuse it.' Palmer played his last US Open in June and will play his final Open at St Andrews next July. However, he will play in the Masters 'as long as my legs hold out'.

(Photograph omitted)

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