Aug 06, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Near the clubhouse at Oak Hill Country Club on a sun-drenched Tuesday afternoon, the scene resembles a red carpet. Literally thousands of fans are draped between the 18th hole and the practice green, screaming and begging for one of those thousands of autographs Phil Mickelson is so famous for giving out.
Now, of course, was the time for fans to get those precious (or not-so precious) signatures before the serious business of the season’s final major starts bright and early Thursday morning in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford. All told, 156 players will tee it up, but only one walks away with the Wanamaker Trophy.
And who is that one? What PGA history at Oak Hill has taught us is that it could range from legendary (Jack Nicklaus) to anonymous (Shaun Micheel), with literally dozens of possibilities in between.
Tiger Woods does not fall into the latter category. Even with five wins this season, and even coming off a total domination at Firestone, Woods faces the enormous burden that five-plus years without a major, the longest drought of his career, has put on him.
Maybe it didn’t help that Woods, who famously said that green speeds fooled him in recent majors, said last week that Oak Hill was also running slow on the Stimpmeter. A week (and a win) later, he’s more positive about how they’re rolling. Woods gets a chance to start quick with a Thursday-morning tee time, and how he does in those opening holes might determine how the rest of the tournament goes for everyone else.
And yes, that includes the last guy to win a major. Phil Mickelson may never play a better round than his masterful 66 that claimed the Open Championship at Muirfield, but he might not need it to add a second PGA to the one he claimed eight years ago.
Dialing back on drivers, Mickelson is finding more fairways, and when his putter gets going, look out. A win here could give “Lefty” as many majors in the last 10 years as Woods, to whom he’s always compared. That’s a comparison Mickelson wouldn’t mind having.
Each of the first two majors in 2013 went to guys that were due – Adam Scott at the Masters, Justin Rose at the U.S. Open. Both players retain solid form going into Oak Hill, with the big question on both ends whether their flat sticks can prove as good as their exquisite play with the rest of the clubs in the bag.
Maybe someone else gets that first major here. Maybe it’s Lee Westwood, who had the 54-hole lead at Muirfield before Mickelson blew by him. So many times, Westwood has garnered major top-fives, and the question is whether the cumulative scar tissue affects his psyche, especially if he gets into contention again.
Or perhaps it’s the turn of Hunter Mahan, who didn’t take advantage of final-pairing appearances at both Merion and Muirfield, but hardly cared after racing home in the middle of the Canadian Open, where he was leading, to see the birth of his first child, a girl named Zoe. That’s made Mahan quite popular, and he’ll have tons of fans should he get another chance on the weekend here.
If the first-time major-winner theme recurs, there’s other names to consider. Americans Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar both have won twice this season, and possess the fine all-around game Oak Hill requires. So does Swede Henrik Stenson, who’s finished in the top five in his last three events.
Why not mention defending champion Rory McIlroy yet? Because his game has not shown much spark in 2013, or other times he’s just proved ordinary. The controversial move to Nike has left McIlroy nowhere near the golfer that blew away the field at Kiawah Island one year ago, but it could also spring up at any time – like this week, for instance.
There’s other usual major suspects to consider, from Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Angel Cabrera and Steve Stricker among the fortysomethings, to younger lights like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Mateo Mannasero and the 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, with Day a particular threat given his four top-three finishes in the last 11 majors. There’s also the 20 club pros who, for the most part, would be happy just to make the cut.
Yet it could prove to be none of the above. A decade ago, Micheel was one of those guys, a rather mysterious figure until grabbing the lead in the second round and fending off Chad Campbell, capped by the epochal seven-iron to the 72nd green.
Star or surprise, all that matters at Oak Hill is that there are no tricks. The best player wins, whoever that might be.
Tomorrow: Historic moments at Oak Hill