The PGA Championship

Inspiration from an unlikely source

Bolstered by Ben Curtis' British win and Rich Beem's major triumph a year ago, everyone is feeling confident at the 85th PGA Championship

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- Optimism at the PGA Championship has never been so high for so many players, and not just because Tiger Woods has gone five majors without winning one.

It comes from Ben Curtis winning the first major he ever played.

"The inspiration is ... you know what? Anyone can win any week out here," Steve Flesch said Wednesday. "That's what you have to keep in mind."

It shouldn't be hard to remember.

Only a month ago at the British Open, a 26-year-old rookie unknown by most of his peers captured the oldest championship in golf by beating the best players in the world. Curtis became the first player in 90 years to win a major in his first try.

Who's next?

Maybe it will be Chris Riley, who learned his lessons from Royal St. George's.

Riley finished third in the PGA Championship last year, and won his first PGA Tour event a week later. But in the first round of the British Open, a 7-over 78 made him wonder if he was fooling himself.

"I was like, 'Look at the names who win this tournament -- Ernie Els, Tiger Woods.' Did I really have a chance coming over here?" Riley said. "Usually, the big names win the major championships. To watch Ben Curtis win ... I'll never take that attitude again.

"It obviously gives guys like myself a lot of confidence."

That means the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at Oak Hill Country Club, could be more wide-open than ever.

The fourth major of the year is famous for its surprises -- John Daly in 1991 at Crooked Stick as the ninth alternate; Jeff Sluman at Oak Tree in 1988 for his first PGA Tour victory; even Rich Beem last year at Hazeltine, although he had won his previous start.

Twelve of the last 15 winners at the PGA Championship had never won a major.

Who's next?

Maybe it will be Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie, the best two players to have never won a major.

"Mike Weir and Jim Furyk were up there with those people that were some of the best players in the world not to win a major championship, and they both got that off their backs now," Thomas Bjorn said. "Players like Mickelson and Monty, that must give them a lot of feeling that they can go in here and have a chance."

Mickelson tied for sixth last week at the International, his first top-10 since he was third at the Masters in April. He has kept out of the spotlight this week, and could be ready to claim that first major when not as many people are watching.

"I want to win just as bad as I always have," Mickelson said. "And I'll be trying just as hard as I always have."

Don't forget about Woods.

His last major championship was the 2002 U.S. Open, hardly an eternity ago. He comes into the PGA Championship with a tie for second, a tie for fourth and a victory in his last three tournaments, and he appears to be playing well.

"Tiger is still the man to beat every week," Ernie Els said.

Still, Woods might have lost some of the intimidation factor he had when he won seven out of 11 majors through the '02 U.S. Open.

A year ago, Woods was only one shot behind Beem going into the back nine at Hazeltine, and Beem proceeded to build an insurmountable lead.

"Before, I think there was an attitude that you had to play really well to beat Tiger," Padraig Harrington of Ireland said. "Now players are saying if he plays great and he wins, fine. But let's see him do it."

Then again, Woods isn't the only guy to beat this week -- not after what Curtis did at the last major, not with so many guys believing it could just as easily been them.

"It takes every rule -- that you think you have to have experience, that you have to play a bunch of these -- and throws it out the window," Charles Howell III said. "It just shows you that anything can happen. It also shows you how good players are."

The PGA Championship likes to boast it has the strongest field in golf, with 96 of the top 100 players at Oak Hill, typical of most years.

The Masters is said to have the weakest field -- only about 95 players, including aging champions like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tommy Aaron.

Truth is, every major used to have a short field. Only so many players had the game, the experience and the mental strength to withstand the Sunday pressure of a major.

How to explain Curtis?

"There's not just one guy that can win a major championship out here," said Davis Love III, the winner of just one major in 19 years on tour. "There's a whole bunch of them, and I'm sure it gives the whole field confidence."

The key is to play good golf, which at Oak Hill means getting the ball in the fairway and keeping it out of the cabbage-like rough around the greens.

Rain has drenched the Rochester area the last two weeks, so the course likely will play even longer than its 7,134 yards. The tradeoff is softer greens that can be attacked.

Curtis Strange won the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill at 2-under 278, with three players another stroke behind. Nicklaus was the only player under par -- 6-under 274 -- when he won his fifth PGA Championship here in 1980.

This is the kind of course that could favor someone who fares well in a U.S. Open, like Furyk, Els, or even someone like Jeff Maggert.

But considering what happened at Royal St. George's, it could be anybody.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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