- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich.

The Monster took its toll on the field in the second round of the 90th PGA Championship, leaving only one player in red numbers but nearly everyone seeing red.

“I don’t feel real lucky. I hit the ball better than that, I thought,” said J.B. Holmes, who posted a 68 to move to 1 under. “There are a lot of holes out here that are almost unplayable. They are a little ridiculous. … Number 17 is one of those holes. They have got a pin today where you could hit a perfect shot, and it’s not going to be on the green.”

That’s not sour grapes, folks; that’s your 36-hole leader speaking. When the man with the best score in the clubhouse has a problem with a Slam setup, you know there’s a major problem.

Holmes, one of the two or three longest hitters in the game’s history, found nearly every fairway Friday. For a dubious putter, his performance on the greens has been better than it ever has been at any event, much less a major. And after 36 holes at Oakland Hills, Holmes finds himself one stroke ahead of the threesome of Justin Rose, Ben Curtis and Charlie Wi.

The last time a PGA Championship featured only one player under par heading into the weekend was 1972. That year, also at Oakland Hills, Jerry Heard stood just where Holmes does at 1-under 139. Gary Player won the Wanamaker Trophy that weekend at 1-over 281, authoring an unforgettable high fade at the 16th over the weeping willows on the once-signature hole.

The willows are gone now, like most of Oakland Hills’ one-time charm.

What’s left is a 7,400-yard torture chamber of gnarly rough and crusty, drunken greens. The results aren’t pretty, not for anyone. The only roars on the property came from post-round interviews. That’s because birdies aren’t at a premium at Oakland Hills; they’re an endangered species. The layout’s two finishing holes yielded three birdies all day, and one came via a chip-in (Anthony Kim at No. 17). That’s not a mystifying stat, it’s an indictment of a PGA of America setup run amok.

“The course is very, very severe. It’s set up as extremely difficult as any course I’ve ever played,” Colin Montgomerie said.

Monty shot 84 on Friday, his worst score at a major since the winds blew 50 mph at Muirfield in the third round of the 2002 British Open. The wind wasn’t blowing 50 mph in Detroit Friday. It was sunny and clear with a slight breeze. The only gusts of hot air came courtesy of redesign architect Rees Jones, the man attempting to defend the sadistic setup.

Some have said the 90th PGA Championship now resembles a U.S. Open. The 36-hold numbers certainly look similar. Par has been protected. But following the Shinnecock Hills debacle of 2004, the USGA has smartened up, introducing graduated rough and slightly more receptive greens at its annual grind-fest. The result has been a series of difficult but fair challenges, highlighted by the lauded setup two months ago at Torrey Pines.

There are no receptive greens at Oakland Hills. And there is no graduated rough; players missing a fairway by several yards are treated to the same, often worse, lies than those who miss by 35 yards.

Sure, occasionally it’s fun to watch golf’s best struggle to make pars. But this week’s PGA completes a Grand Slam of attrition for this season’s majors. The Greencoats have done their best to ruin Augusta National. The U.S. Open, though no longer a lottery, is still a par-fest. The British Open took place during a typhoon, though the R&A; can’t be blamed for the defining defense of links golf courses. And now we get the Monster, which Jones and the PGA of America have conspired to turn into a pure Frankenstein. The players are sick of it. And so are golf fans.

“This is a major, it’s not supposed to be easy,” Sergio Garcia said. “It’s a tough course. It’s really tough. But it’s playable.”

The 28-year-old would be the best possible winner for the event, given the names on the leader board. He has both the game and the charisma to give the 90th PGA Championship an identity with Tiger on the shelf and most of sports focused on Beijing. And perhaps Garcia is ready to take his long-awaited major step. The verbal restraint he showed after Friday’s frustrating 73 was a move toward maturity.

Perhaps he’s finally worthy to wear the major mantle … even if Oakland Hills hardly looks worthy to bestow it.

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