PGA Championship caters to 1st-time major winners

PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) — If you’re a golfer chasing that first major title, you’ve come to the right place.

The list of winners at the PGA Championship is filled with guys who were once in your spiked shoes.

From Keegan Bradley to Shaun Micheel, there’s something about the year’s final major that seems to bring out the best in those seeking one of those career-defining victories.

“You win one,” said Tiger Woods, who’s got 14, “you’re part of history.”

The final major championship of the year began Thursday morning at soggy Oak Hill, which received about a quarter-inch of rain overnight. The clouds broke and the sun was out for the opening tee shot by Rob Labritz, one of 20 club pros in the 156-player field.

Not surprisingly, there’s been plenty of speculation this week about who might break through at this venerable course just outside of Rochester.

Dustin Johnson certainly has the game to win a major title. Hunter Mahan has been a perennial contender in the big events. Maybe Lee Westwood will finally break through after coming close again at the British Open.

Over the past quarter century, there’s a better chance of winning No. 1 at the PGA than the other three majors.

Sixteen of the last 25 PGA champions fit into that category. A dozen of those are still stuck on one major triumph.

Some were up-and-comers who broke through sooner than expected (Bradley falls into that group). Others were total surprises (none more so than Micheel, though he’s got plenty of company).

Justin Rose, who won the U.S. Open in June, believes the PGA tends to be more wide open because the course setups are closer to a regular tour event than one sees at the other majors.

“I think that gives (the PGA) its own unique position,” Rose said. “Each major has its own identity and its own sort of personality. But I would say this one does relate to a regular event a little more than the others.”

Indeed, the PGA Championship does have a bit of an also-ran feeling compared to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. In this country, NFL training camps have opened and the baseball pennant races are starting to heat up, stealing away much of the attention from other sports, golf included.

Maybe that helps relieve some of the pressure on less-accomplished players, allowing them to sneak in for a major title against more prominent competitors. Maybe that explains how Y.E. Yang rallied to beat Woods at Hazeltine in 2009 when the world’s No. 1 player had a lead after 54 holes — the only time he’s blown an advantage heading into the final round of a major.

Since then, Woods has endured some radical changes in his life — on and off the course.

Woods, who had a morning tee time, hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. He’s 0-for-17 since then, the longest drought of his career.

These days, there are plenty of players who aren’t the least bit intimidated by Woods’ towering presence. Sure, he still wins more than anyone else — this season alone, he’s got five victories and holds the world’s No. 1 ranking — but just breaking out the red shirt on Sunday no longer means everyone else will be raising a white flag.

There are too many players who feel they can match Woods’ exquisite game.

“The depth and quality of the field is pretty remarkable now, especially at the majors,” Mahan said. “When I first joined the tour, it seemed like there was maybe a handful of guys who could win and had a legitimate chance.”

He figures there are between 20 and 30 players who have a legitimate chance of winning at Oak Hill.

“It makes for exciting golf and it makes for unpredictable golf,” Mahan said. “You just never know who is going to come out on top.”

Already this year, there have been a couple of first-time major winners — Rose and Masters champ Adam Scott, who were scheduled to play in the afternoon with British Open winner Phil Mickelson.

That said, Woods is an overwhelming favorite to capture his 15th major title, even with the long gap since No. 14. He’s coming off a seven-stroke victory in the Bridgestone, and by no means does anyone seem to think he’s done winning on the biggest stages.

“Having him back, having him play well, having him win like he’s won this year, is great for the game of golf,” said Mickelson, who is back up to No. 2 in the world rankings. “He’s not hitting the (poor) shots he did for a few years. He’s playing solid, and he played great last week.”

Of course, historic Oak Hill might not be the best course for a major neophyte to break through. The narrow fairways and tricky greens certainly seem set up for a more established winner.

“These traditional-style courses really test patience and strategy,” Scott said. “An experienced and mature golfer should have a slight advantage in that.”

Tom Watson, who has won every major title except the PGA, was asked who might have the best chance at being a first-time winner this season. He couldn’t come up with a name.

“Who can put the ball in the fairway the most?” he asked. “This may be the toughest golf course, but the fairest golf course that we play. Pick ‘em. Somebody’s going to win this thing, and that person is going to play awfully well.”

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