- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — The only whistling going on at the 86th PGA Championship yesterday came from the players.

The wind which had howled off Lake Michigan all week disappeared. The showers forecasted never arrived. Wednesday’s unseasonably cold weather gave way to sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. The PGA of America capitulated with the easiest imaginable course setup. And the field turned supposedly sadistic Whistling Straits into Uncle Ernie’s pitch-and-putt.

“I didn’t think during my first practice round on Sunday that I would be able to shoot 65 on Thursday,” said Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke after pacing the field’s red-number assault on the par-72 lion-turned-lamb. “We got fortunate with the conditions this morning. The greens were holding; we were able to fire at flags that we were not able to do earlier this week. … What little wind there was came at us or was with us, instead of the nasty crosser we’ve had all week. … There were good shots and guys hitting at flags all over the place.”

Clarke, of course, was the man who on Monday claimed he’d never seen a course with so many par-6s, estimating Whistling Straits’ par at closer to 77 than 72. But he was far from alone in that dire assessment. Spain’s Sergio Garcia dubbed the course by far the most difficult he’d ever seen. And even world No.1 Tiger Woods said a healthy wind would turn Whistling Straits into the sternest test on the planet.

The upshot was that Pete Dye and his links look-alike had virtually won the PGA Championship on Wednesday afternoon. The doom and gloomers had made such a racket by then that the PGA of America was terrified of stumbling into the same reputation for ruthlessness that has turned the USGA into a punchline.

So, criticism-wary tournament officials decided to set up the golf course in the easiest imaginable fashion. They moved up a handful of tees, shortening the layout from its brutish potential (7,597 yards) to 7,369 yards. They picked Champions Tour pin locations, avoiding green edges and ridges.

And when the weather didn’t arrive to protect the neutered course, the result was as predictable as a six-inch putt — more than a third of the field shot par or better and 39 players recorded red-digit rounds.

“There’s a lot of teeth still left in this golf course,” said world No.2 Ernie Els, tied with Justin Leonard one behind Clarke after an opening 66. “They can stretch it out and make it really very tough. But for the first or second round, to get the field moving, I think they did the right thing.”

Of course, there were some notable exceptions to the full-field assault on Whistling Straits. Woods, despite oozing confidence in his pre-tournament press conference, posted an abysmal 75. The 28-year-old Woods started on the back nine and was distracted by an overzealous photographer on the 11th hole. The result was a severe snaphook that led to a double-bogey on the reachable par-5, and Woods never saw the happy side of par again.

“I just putted atrociously today,” said Woods, slumming it in a tie for 104th with such notables as Mike Small, the University of Illinois golf coach.

Woods hasn’t missed a cut since the 1997 Bell Canadian Open, putting together a record run of 128 straight made cuts. Without a significant second-round improvement (probably 72 or better), that streak could end today. Regardless of his play this afternoon in what will likely be more difficult conditions, Woods is almost certain to see his major drought extended to 10, a number that borders on astounding considering the one-time dominance of the eight-time major champion.

Perhaps the day’s ultimate kudos belong to Phil Mickelson. The Masters champion, who opened with a solid 69 yesterday, was the only player in the field who stepped forward earlier this week and suggested both his compatriots and the media were overestimating the course’s difficulty.

Mickelson pointed to the ample fairways and soft, slowish greens and shrugged his shoulders at the layout on Tuesday. Yesterday, Lefty was vindicated, though he left the property somewhat unsatisfied with his 3-under effort.

“The course played very susceptible to low scores, to birdies, and I didn’t play nearly as well as I’ll need to if I want to win this championship,” said Mickelson, along with Els the only player to finish in the top 10 in the season’s first three majors. “I drove the ball very poorly and put myself in a lot of bad positions. I wasn’t as sharp as I should be around the greens. It just wasn’t very pretty. That said, if you had told me earlier in the week I’d shoot 69 today, I would have been very happy.”

Virtually the entire field was delighted with what unfolded yesterday. But the PGA of America knows it overreacted somewhat to the hype surrounding the unknown layout. Setup adjustments are forthcoming. And you aren’t likely to see nearly as many smiling faces over the next three days.

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