Woods aims to equal Hogan's run of 1953
Having been featured in cover stories of such bastions of American life as
The New Yorker magazines, Tiger Woods returns to his natural prowling ground of a major championship venue for the 82nd USPGA Championship. Given the way Woods demolished the opposition at both The Open and the US Open, it is easy to forget that exactly a year ago the world No 1 had only one major title to his name.
Having been featured in cover stories of such bastions of American life as Time and The New Yorker magazines, Tiger Woods returns to his natural prowling ground of a major championship venue for the 82nd USPGA Championship. Given the way Woods demolished the opposition at both The Open and the US Open, it is easy to forget that exactly a year ago the world No 1 had only one major title to his name.
The relief with which Woods holed a par-saving putt at the 17th hole at Medinah, and completed a one-stroke victory over Sergio Garcia a hole later, was obvious at the time. Having won his first major as a professional, 10 more had gone by before he added a second. It remains his hardest-fought victory. Off the course, the doubters were ready to burst the bubble of hype surrounding Woods; on it he had to survive a thrilling comeback by Garcia.
A pressure valve had been released. What followed was a winning streak in tour events that lasted into this season. Then came the momentous performances at Pebble Beach and St Andrews, where Woods became only the fifth player in the history of the game to win each of the four major titles.
More history beckons at Valhalla this weekend. Victory would make him only the second player, after Ben Hogan in 1953, to win three majors in a year. Rewriting the record books clearly motivates Woods, but he is determined not to get ahead of himself during the four days that matter.
"I am not here trying to duplicate what Hogan did in 1953," he said. "That is strictly a by-product of winning the tournament. It's like going into the British Open and worrying about the Grand Slam. I have to put myself in position, hopefully win the tournament and whatever happens, happens."
Following St Andrews, Woods took time off and filmed a TV commercial in Canada, so incurring the wrath of the Screen Actor's Guild, who may expel him as a member. "I did savour the moment of winning the British," he said. "But there was always this inkling at the back of my mind that there was still one more major to come."
Last week's Buick Open, where he finished 11th, was a chance for Woods to work on his game. "I changed my swing plan at the British to get the ball running on the ground," he said. "I needed to get the ball back up in the air, especially for Valhalla. Most Jack Nicklaus courses are set up well for anyone who hits the ball high."
There again, Mark Brooks won in 1996 playing a low draw. The course could not be more different from the three major venues so far this year. Though some players have revised their opinions now the course has further matured, it is still only 14 years old and, even for America, lacking in history.
"I don't think you are going to say Valhalla is in the same calibre as Augusta, Pebble Beach and St Andrews," Woods said. "But this course is going to be a test and we can't ignore that. There is a lot of rough and the greens are severe. The penalty for missing fairways and greens is like any major, you are going to pay the price."
It is possible, however, that the less subtle nature of the layout will limit Woods' ability to separate himself from the field by a large margin. Another thing to give the other 149 players some hope is the USPGA's resistance to established winners. Not since Denny Shute in 1937 has a player successfully defended the title, while nine of the last 11 players to lift the Wanamaker Trophy had not already won a major title. Woods was one of the exceptions.
Ernie Els, after finishing runner-up in each of the three majors this season and winning The International two weeks ago, must remain the favourite to challenge the world No 1. With David Duval injured, Phil Mickelson heads the American pack. As for the Europeans, dealing with the heat and humidity may be the biggest problem.
Jesper Parnevik was the leading European in fifth place four years ago, while Colin Montgomerie, who only arrived in Kentucky late on Tuesday, missed the cut. Lee Westwood - with the best Tour-winning streak in the world at present with four victories in nine starts - and Darren Clarke are seeing the course for the first time.
One of Woods' playing partners for the first two days, Vijay Singh, should be another contender. The Masters champion traditionally plays with the winners of the other two majors at the USPGA but an alternate was required. The name that came out of the hat happened to be that of a 60-year-old five-time former winner of the USPGA probably playing in the event for the last time: Jack Nicklaus.
"Jack is obviously the greatest champion of all time," Woods said, "and it is going to be quite an honour and a lot of fun to play with him."
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