Woods' struggles makes Championship interesting
Golf's landscape looks so much different heading into the final major championship of the year.
Tiger Woods, always the man to beat in any major, arrives at the PGA Championship as just another contender. It's one thing for him to still be looking for a victory in a major, quite another for the world's No. 1 player to have not won any tournament at all this late in the season.
Then again, Woods didn't get started until the Masters in April. And he still is trying to piece together a personal life in turmoil from his extramarital affairs that were uncovered nine months ago.
"Just be patient, keep working, keep going," Woods said on the eve of the Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods did not look sharp in the final tournament before the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which starts Thursday just outside Sheboygan.
Woods had never shot over par at Firestone since 2006, and he did it all four days to finish a career-high 30 shots out of the lead.
"Shooting 18-over par is not fun," Woods said. "I don't see how it can be fun shooting 18 over."
There are plenty of trends in golf, some of them related to the state of his game.
Without Woods winning his usual share of tournaments, others have taken advantage of the void. And if there is one trend that stands out in American golf this year, it's the preponderance of international players winning on the PGA Tour.
It started with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland closing with a record 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship on one of the more demanding courses on the PGA Tour. That began a stretch of foreign-born players winning 11 of 15 events on the U.S. tour. The only American winners were Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson and Matt Bettencourt.
"When you have one player dominating and winning consistently, there's very few people who are gaining confidence. If anything, it's going to work in the opposite way," Padraig Harrington said. "Nobody is quite dominating at the moment. That leaves two things. One, players aren't scared. And two, there's more of them to win."
Two of those international players won majors for the first time—Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland in the U.S. Open, during a final round at Pebble Beach when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were in prime position; and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa at St. Andrews, where he won the British Open by seven shots.
Even more alarming for the Americans?
None finished among the top three in consecutive majors, which had not happened in 98 years.
For British agent Chubby Chandler, whose stable includes Oosthuizen, Els and Lee Westwood, it reminds him of a 10-year stretch from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s when international players won half the majors.
"I think European Tour players will win something like five out of the next eight majors. We're that strong now," Chandler said on the day after Oosthuizen's victory at St. Andrews. "I've got a sense what happened in the ‘80s is about to happen again. Only then, it was about five players. And there will be 25 from our tour going to Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship thinking they can win it."
The 92nd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday in the heartland of America, on a links-styled course that Pete Dye built along the bluffs of Lake Michigan. Whistling Straits last hosted the PGA Championship in 2004, when Vijay Singh won in a playoff.
The 156-man field is getting more international by the year. There are 76 players from overseas, compared with only 47 international players who were part of the field 10 years ago.
The defending PGA champion is Y.E. Yang of South Korea, who became the first Asian male to win a major last year at Hazeltine when he rallied from two shots behind to beat Woods in the final round.
One other trend: Five of the last six major champions had never won a Grand Slam event before, the exception being Mickelson at the Masters. It's the longest such stretch since there were six first-time major winners from the 2002 PGA through to the 2004 U.S. Open.
"Golf is very strong in depth at the moment," said Westwood, the 37-year-old from England who has established himself as the best to have never won a major. "Players are better coached nowadays. They're not afraid to win and they get into position more regularly than maybe they used to. Obviously, Tiger has not won as many as you would have thought he would have won recently, so that creates room for other people to win majors."
That golf has become deeper and stronger globally is not much of a surprise. It has been building toward that for the better part of the last decade, especially since the advent of the World Golf Championships in 1999 that not only brought together the world's best more often, it gave international players another avenue to reach the PGA Tour.
These days, the only thing American about the PGA Tour is the headquarters in Florida.
"We come over here and get more comfortable with the players and the golf courses," McDowell said. "I just think we have a lot of top players right now who are playing out here more often, and it's obviously pure mathematics."
Harrington wonders if the PGA Tour has become so international that it hurts the development of young Americans. Whereas international players learn to win against weaker fields in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, young Americans immediately face the best.
"A good season over here for a young player, he might get in contention three or four times, might win once," Harrington said. "Whereas a good season for a young player in Europe, he gets in contention 12 times and wins twice. And those 12 times he's in contention, he's going to learn from those. And that will help him grow as a player.
"There's no doubt—this is a tough thing to say—that the strength of the U.S. tour doesn't help grow young players."
Harrington, a three-time major champion, still believes an exception player will rise no matter where he plays. The classic example is Woods, who reached No. 1 in the world within nine months of turning pro, and has twice stayed at No. 1 for five-year spans.
He just doesn't look like that kind of player now.
Woods remains ultra private about his personal life, refusing to confirm he is in the process of a divorce, although he did concede that parcels of time and focus he once devoted to practice has been taken away by problems he never faced before.
"I've had more things going on once I'm at a tournament site than I have in the past, and for different reasons," he said.
Woods remains stuck on 14 career majors, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. His last major seems so long ago, that Monday at Torrey Pines when he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open in his final event before reconstructive knee surgery. If he fails to win at Whistling Straits, it will be the third time in his career that 10 majors have elapsed without him winning one.
Winning anything at the moment would satisfy Woods.