Golf: USPGA Championship: Faldo can stir a melting pot: Who will stay cool to rise above the challenge of 72 holes in Tulsa? Robert Green reports

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WE ARE about 94 hours from Tulsa, where the 76th USPGA championship will begin on Thursday at the Southern Hills course. It is likely that temperatures will be in excess of 94F for the duration of the tournament, which means we might be in for a repeat of Oakmont, where some players at the US Open last June did not so much wilt as melt. Let us hope that Colin Montgomerie has remembered to pack enough shirts this time.

Southern hospitality? More like southern discomfort. Of Southern Hills's four previous majors, its two US Opens, rather than its two USPGAs, stick in the memory, and not just for the sticky conditions.

The 1958 US Open was won by 'Terrible' Tommy Bolt, or 'Thunder Bolt,' the nicknames reflecting his tempestuous temperament. Bolt will chiefly be remembered because he could throw a club past anybody, but when his more admirable traits coalesced that week, he won by four shots from a 22-year-old Gary Player. Bolt was 39 at the time, or so he said, and his temper emerged when a newspaper described him as being 49. A reporter apologised for the 'typographical error'. 'Typographical error, hell,' stormed Bolt. 'That was a perfect four. And a perfect nine.'

It was 19 years before the US Open was back in this Oklahoma town. The winner was Hubert Green, who had to survive more than the pressure of trying to win his first major and prevent the championship from being won by Lou Graham for the second time in three years. On the 14th hole on Sunday, officials told Green there had been a telephone call threatening his life. They gave him the option of postponing play, but he chose to continue. 'Probably an old girlfriend,' he shrugged, and got on with it.

Fortunately the shooting was confined to the golf, and fortunately for Green he did not need a par at the last to win. The 18th green at Southern Hills is protected by a bunker so deep that a golfer could lose himself in it. Green went in there, barely got his ball out, and had to hole from three feet for a bogey five to win.

Nobody will relish needing to make four on the 18th to win next Sunday. At 430 yards, it does not sound especially horrendous, but the drive must stay short of water that cuts into the fairway, and that means an uphill second shot of more than 200 yards from a downhill lie, with that bunker to carry.

So who will be best equipped to handle the heat, both literally and metaphorically, this week? European golfers, all 16 of them, appear to start at a disadvantage in that respect. Even those from southern Europe cannot go to Southern Hills fortified by precedent. Jose Maria Olazabal has finished in the top 50 in the USPGA only once in the past five years, and Seve Ballesteros has not played in the past two. No apologies are in order for tentatively advancing the name of Nick Faldo, who was third last year and second in 1992, as probably Europe's leading light. His final-round 64 in the Open at Turnberry reaffirmed what we all know - if he can have a remotely meaningful relationship with his putter, he is usually the man to beat.

The man to beat in the US this season has often been Nick Price, the new Open champion and winner of the USPGA in 1992, who has won three times on the US Tour in 1994 while no one else has managed it twice - not even Greg Norman, who nevertheless is in line to break the money-winning record with more than two months of the season to go.

While history militates against a European champion - there have been none since the British-born, naturalised Americans won the first three - a Commonwealth winner is a more common species, with not only Zimbabwe's Price but also Australia's David Graham (1979) and Wayne Grady (1990) having picked up the hefty Wannamaker Trophy since Gary Player secured the second of his two USPGA titles in 1972.

Another man from the Commonwealth, Fiji's Vijay Singh, fired a 63 in the second round of the championship in Toledo last year, where he finished fourth, and his spectacular victory in Sweden last Sunday means his confidence is high. The case against Singh is made by his putting, but in that respect Southern Hills will probably not be like Oakmont. The greens have to be regularly watered merely to keep the grass on them in the intense heat, and that will mean surfaces slower and more amenable to the average putter. That, of course, could let in just about anybody, including Fred Couples, whose back problems are a recurring worry, and - as a contender at least - even Tom Watson, tormented by his putter at Turnberry but fifth in the USPGA 12 months ago.

Finally, two historical footnotes. First, since the existing four major championships came into being in 1934, there has never been a year in which the United States has not provided at least one winner. Following Olazabal, Els and Price, this could be the year.

Second, no one has successfully defended the USPGA title since Denny Shute in 1937, and it is exceedingly unlikely that Paul Azinger will manage it this year. Following prolonged treatment for cancer, he made his seasonal debut in Boston last week. His illness reminds us that what is about to take place is only a game. But it could provide a climax that will be every bit as torrid as the weather.

(Photograph omitted)