- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The 87th PGA Championship became a major debacle at Baltusrol yesterday.

Both the standard of the golf at the top of the leader board and the decision-making at the top of the organizational ladders of CBS and the PGA of America looked remarkably poor by early evening.

Even though virtually every weather service predicted massive and widespread afternoon thunderstorms for the metropolitan New York City area, the PGA and CBS didn’t consider shifting the final-round starting times up an hour or two to provide some wiggle room for a weather delay.

As a result, when the storms slammed into the area just after 6:15 p.m. to force the suspension of play for the day, 12 players were still on the course, including tournament leader Phil Mickelson and virtually every player with a chance to win the Wanamaker Trophy.

“I had certainly asked [the PGA] to maybe go an hour earlier to try to get it in,” said Mickelson, who started at 6 under and had slipped to 4 under through 13 final-round holes before the wind, rain and lightning arrived. “I wish we could have finished today, obviously.”

Mickelson holds a one-stroke lead over 1995 PGA champion Steve Elkington (3 under through 15) and Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn (3 under through 14). All 12 players will return to the property this morning for a 10:05 restart.

Mickelson and spiraling playing partner Davis Love III (4 over for the day and 2 under for the tournament) were on the 14th green when the storm arrived. Obviously antsy about the darkening skies, Mickelson rushed a point-blank birdie bid, goosing it two feet past the hole, and was about to finish the comebacker when the electricity declared its presence.

“I was getting ready to putt when a lightning bolt struck pretty close by, and we got off the course pretty fast,” Mickelson said. “I love this championship, OK, but I want to live, man.”

Considering the way Lefty putted most of the day, perhaps the stoppage was the best thing that could have happened to him. After starting the day at 6 under, the 35-year-old Mickelson looked poised to run away with the tournament when he coasted home a short-range birdie putt at the treacherous No. 4 to reach 7 under and claim a three-stroke lead. But over the next six holes, Mickelson proceeded to miss three par putts inside of six feet (Nos. 6, 7 and 9) and added another bogey blunder at the 10th to find himself 3 under for the championship and two strokes behind Elkington.

“I don’t feel like today was a slide like [Saturday],” said Mickelson, who endured a similar stretch of miscues during a sloppy third-round 72 on the 7,392-yard, par-70 course. “I felt like the course was playing tremendously harder.”

There’s no doubt that a much harder, faster Baltusrol had its fangs out yesterday. There were few red numbers as the baked greens approached ludicrous speeds.

“The difficulty is really on the greens because they’re so fast that the wind is moving the ball about one inch per foot so that you have to play six inches of break on a straight six-foot putt,” Mickelson said, perhaps exaggerating only slightly.

The scores of the field prove the layout was playing much tougher yesterday, but the leaders certainly didn’t rise to the challenge. All 12 players who began the day at 3 under or better were over par on the day when play was suspended. And the toughening conditions didn’t stop rank-and-filer Ted Purdy from posting a 66 midway through the day. Nor did it stop Tiger Woods from carding a 68 that pushed him to 2 under and left him as the leader in the clubhouse when play was halted.

Unfortunately for Woods and the rest of those who completed their rounds yesterday, the course isn’t likely to have close to the same teeth when the dozen hopefuls with work to do return this morning.

“This is a tremendous advantage,” said Mickelson, who still is enjoying raucous galleries as the people’s choice during his bid for a second major. “We get a few extra holes to play and hopefully calm weather after hopefully some rain that will soften it up a bit. That gives me one more hole, maybe two, over my competitors, to possibly make birdie.”

Mickelson’s stiffest challenge likely will come from Elkington, who gave the lead back to Lefty when he responded to the roar of a Mickelson birdie at the 13th with bogeys at Nos. 13 and 15. Like everyone else on the property, the 42-year-old Australian was annoyed by the stoppage and poor tournament planning but reveled in the opportunity to post a score ahead of Mickelson.

“It’s just my job to show up and play,” said Elkington, looking for his first PGA Tour victory since 1999 at Doral. “I’m going to be the first guy through those last three holes with a chance to win. Given that two of the holes are par-5s [Nos. 17 and 18], it’s my job to go out there and get a couple more birdies. I think my chances are still pretty good.”

Unfortunately, neither a prime-time viewing audience nor a massive weekend gallery will be able to witness today’s potential heroics. CBS and the PGA apparently settled on a 7 p.m. finish more than a year ago and refused to adjust the schedule despite the meteorological evidence.

Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s managing director of tournaments, said yesterday the final decision to adjust the start time rested with his organization. There certainly has been recent precedent for tweaking final-round start times at a major. Just two years ago at the Masters, with a similar weather forecast entering the final round, officials at Augusta National shifted the start times ahead an hour and dodged disaster.

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