- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. This week's 84th PGA Championship officially should be renamed the Hangover at Hazeltine.

This was expected to be the site of arguably the greatest achievement in sports history. The 7,360-yard, par-72 track was expected to be the perfect prodigious stage for the final act of Tiger Woods' Slam quest. But thanks to his memorable third-round meltdown at Muirfield, the season's final major couldn't feel more minor.

"It probably would have been a complete circus if Tiger was trying to wrap up the Slam, but it would have been some fun to be a part of," two-time PGA champion Nick Price said yesterday. "It definitely feels a little quiet compared to the first three [majors this season]. It can't help but be a little bit anticlimactic, I guess."

The PGA Championship always has been on the bottom rung of the major championship ladder. The Masters has the unparalleled mystique of Augusta National and the first slot on the majors calendar. The U.S. Open is universally regarded as golf's sternest test, as well as being the national championship. And the British Open has history, links golf and daunting weather.

The PGA Championship has well 25 club pros to provide it with definitively different flavor. Let's face it, unless you ask a club pro, that particular flavor qualifies as somewhere south of vanilla.

Usually, the PGA at least represents the final opportunity for U.S. players to acquire Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup points. But this week, with the Ryder Cup teams carried over from last year's postponed event, even the standard snap associated with the pursuit of Uncle Sam's squad is missing.

Even the charge of seeing how Tiger would rebound from his British Open nightmare was somewhat defused last week when Woods walked away with the Buick Open.

Woods restated yesterday that he hasn't allowed himself to dwell on 'what ifs,' chalking up his Saturday 81 at Muirfield to the combination of freakishly bad weather and poor ball-striking.

"You guys all saw it it wasn't exactly easy conditions on Saturday at the Open," Woods said. "That's what happens sometimes. But I've had a great year. Anytime you can win one major championship, it's going to be a successful year. I think winning two in one year so far, it's been even better. I'd like to make it three."

Woods, of course, won three majors in 2000, joining Ben Hogan (1953) as the only player to accomplish the feat. And nobody has won three in a season more than once. That's still one giant stride short of a Slam, but only a player of Tiger's unmatched talents could make a three-major season seem somehow disappointing.

"I think that's your fault for doing that build-up," Woods said, addressing the media as a group. "To be able to go out there and have your game peak for that one week and deal with all the different circumstances you have to deal with is unbelievably difficult. I try to do it four times a year, and so far I've done it two times two and three-quarter times. It's tough because it's the toughest conditions and the best players in the world."

The last part of that statement will be more applicable than ever this week as Woods faces the strongest field in major championship history at Hazeltine. Perhaps the caliber of the PGA Championship's field, which is always stronger than its three higher-profile brethren, should be considered its ultimate defining attraction. A staggering 98 of the top 100 players in the world are in this week's field.

But despite that incredible collection of talent, all eyes, and most psyches, are still focused on Woods.

"If Tiger is on his game, he's such a competitor that he's probably still going to beat me," said Ernie Els, who obviously hasn't parlayed his victory at the British Open into a fountain of Tiger-trampling confidence.

Like everyone else in the world, Els already has dismissed Tiger's third round at Muirfield as a complete anomaly.

"It was just one of those days where the weather just beat the hell out of you," Els said before moving on to defend Tiger's foul-weather prowess. "And nobody out here is going to question Tiger's ability to handle the elements. After all, he basically won the U.S. Open in the muck on Friday."

And to listen to Tiger's would-be challengers dismiss his failures and extol his virtues at long-knocker-friendly Hazeltine, you would think he had one hand on the Wanamaker Trophy yesterday.

As has become the pre-major norm, only intrepid Spaniard Sergio Garcia had the spunk to grab the gauntlet when asked about challenging Woods.

"There's no doubt that he's a great player if not the best there's ever been, close to it," said Garcia, who has been better than anybody in the majors this season from tee to green but has struggled mightily with his midrange putting. "I know my chances out there. I know what I can do. I know that if I'm playing well and doing what I have to do, I can beat him."

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