Mickelson aims to play things straight
Key to winning at Whistling Straits will be all about finding the fairway as the usual major contenders gather
Sunday 08 August 2004
After such a riveting series of major championships any attempt to rank them in order becomes a futile exercise. The US PGA is always last chronologically and may lack something in terms of glamour but this week at the banks of Lake Michigan there are still questions to be answered.
Can Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson lead another charge of golf's finest? Will Tiger Woods finally join the party? How will the week affect the line-ups for the Ryder Cup teams? And most intriguing of all, where exactly on the banks of Lake Michigan will all this be going on? Whistling Straits is only six years old and hosting a major championship for the first time. The course was designed by Pete Dye and occupies two miles of Wisconsin shoreline on the lake near the town of Kohler, nine miles north of Sheboygan, an hour from Milwaukee and two and a half hours north of Chicago.
If the wind really blows, apparently, it could be the last major ever staged there. On the other hand, if everything goes well, the US Open will be knocking on the door within the decade. It was once an army base but 13,126 truckloads of sand later it may be the nearest thing to a links that America has. Shinnecock Hills, scene of the second major of the year, looked like a links, played like a typical US Open for two and a half days and then turned into the Long Island Expressway.
Everyone but the one-putting winner Retief Goosen crossed the Atlantic moaning about the course but there was not a bad word to be heard about Royal Troon. The portents were perfect for last month's Open and it delivered in thrilling style, with Els managing to defeat everyone but the unlikely hero, Todd Hamilton, who won in a play-off.
No one knows quite what to expect up in Wisconsin, although Mickelson, the Masters champion, has been following his routine and spent a few days there last week to prepare. According to some who have been there, Mickelson may not have realised that he has left Scotland.
Humps and hollows abound and there are countless bunkers. The wind, which as on any exposed course will dictate the winning score, blows predominately from three different directions and can change every three hours so players will have to adapt their games accordingly.
Only on the greens will the players definitely know they are in America, for the putting surfaces are typically large and sharply undulating. But the speed will be kept down to 11 on the Stimpmeter to prevent a repeat of Shinnecock.
At a mammoth 7,597 yards it ought to suit the monster hitters but with running fairways it will play shorter than that and straying off line could be fatal on such an immature site. Mickelson has been in the top three at each of the three majors so far but Els could also have won all three but for two near-misses and a blow-out at the US Open. Sundays at the majors have not been kind to the South African and the defeat at Troon must have hurt even more.
There were stretches where Els played sublime golf and yet he was unable to shake off the persevering, and deserving, Hamilton. The latest unfancied American to collect the Claret Jug may not disappear as fast as Ben Curtis and despite what happens this week must come into the Ryder Cup wildcard thoughts of US skipper Hal Sutton.
This is the final qualifying event for the Americans and a week tomorrow Sutton will announce his two picks to round off the team. He may find it hard to omit a reigning major champion, although it has happened in the past. Just ask John Daly.
Daly, of course, would be the ultimate wild card and although Sutton's conservative nature may lead him to follow his predecessors in overlooking Mr Grip-It-And-Rip-It, he is showing enough form to be a contender. With all the top names likely to qualify, Daly, who would leap at the chance to represent his country, would bring something to the team that few others could provide.
For the Europeans, there are still three weeks to go but selection is still uppermost in the mind and now that Luke Donald has joined Colin Montgomerie at the top of Bernhard Langer's wild-card queue, the likes of Justin Rose will have to do something special to get in the team.
Of there more senior counterparts, Lee Westwood is looking to continue his form from Troon, Darren Clarke is back with Billy Foster as his caddie but Padraig Harrington has been resting his old neck injury.
Which leaves Tiger, who really may, finally, be getting close. At the Buick Open last week he shot 21-under-par putting like a drain. Of course, that was the golfing gods' little jest but the important point is that in his last three tournaments the ball has been increasingly under control.
Woods has gone nine majors without a win. Five years ago, he arrived at the US PGA having gone ten majors without a win. And we all know what happened next.
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