As the last of the four majors, the PGA usually receives the
least attention, but last week's reemergence of Phil Mickelson
is one more reason that this year the old rules won't apply. A
victory at Winged Foot by the 27-year-old Mickelson would not
only mean that for the first time in history the four major
titles were held by players under 30 but also establish a
fearsome foursome that could dominate the game for years to come.
What would make this PGA even more special, though, would be a
win by Masters champion Tiger Woods. No golfer has ever won two
majors in his first full season as a professional. (Gene Sarazen
was 20 when he won the U.S. Open and the PGA in 1922, but that
was his second full year on Tour.) Woods would particularly like
a win at Winged Foot because that's the course where his
instructor, Butch Harmon, grew up as the son of the head pro,
Claude Harmon. Already Butch has given Tiger a couple of guided
tours of the place.
A victory by U.S. Open winner Ernie Els or British Open champ
Justin Leonard would also be distinctive. Winning two or more
professional majors in a season has been accomplished only 24
times in this century and by just 14 players. Jack Nicklaus did
it five times, Ben Hogan three times, while Sarazen, Bobby
Jones, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson each did it twice.
Regardless of what has already happened in 1997 and what might
occur between now and the Tour Championship, which concludes the
season, if Els, Leonard or Woods wins the PGA, he will be named
the player of the year. That makes this PGA a showdown.
The play within the play, of course, will be the race for Ryder
Cup points. The PGA is the final event in which they are
awarded, and because majors carry double points, the outcome of
the PGA could influence the makeup of the U.S. team. A player as
low as 23rd on the points list, for example, could jump into the
top 10 and qualify for an automatic berth with a win at Winged
Foot. Because Tom Kite must announce his two captain's
selections the day after the PGA, the wild-card contenders also
need to make a good impression.
That the PGA is at Winged Foot is sure to enhance the
championship. The event has had success in secondary markets and
on modern courses, but few sites can match the allure of
Manhattan, only 40 minutes away, and the history of Winged Foot.
It's the course on which Bobby Jones won the third of his four
U.S. Open titles. Winged Foot was where, at the '74 Open, the
USGA exacted revenge for Johnny Miller's closing 63 the year
before at Oakmont by creating the most severe setup in the
championship's history. The result was the so-called Massacre at
Winged Foot--Hale Irwin won with a seven-over-par 287. During
that Open, the championship committee chairman, Sandy Tatum, was
asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the best golfers in
the world. His classic response: "No, we are trying to identify
Winged Foot is the best course on which a PGA has been played
since the event was held at Pebble Beach in 1977. The
74-year-old club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., represents the finest work
of designer A.W. Tillinghast, and the proof is in how little the
course has been changed. It is long and narrow, with small
greens protected by steep-walled bunkers. The artful contours of
the putting surfaces will test every aspect of the short game,
yet accuracy and imagination with long approach shots will
probably tell the tale.
Winged Foot has seven par-4s of more than 440 yards, and some
think it favors long hitters. Two such players, Fuzzy Zoeller
and Greg Norman, tied for first after regulation at the '84
Open. (Zoeller won the 18-hole playoff.) That bodes well for
Els, Mickelson and Woods. On the other hand, the long-iron play
of the short-hitting Irwin was the key to his win in '74. He
also held the 54-hole lead in '84. Leonard's style is more like
Whatever happens, this year it will be said of the PGA that it
was last, but not least.