Low scores don't make winning the PGA any easier

The crowds at Medinah are seeing their favorites contest a different kind of major. (Photo: AP)
The crowds at Medinah are seeing their favorites contest a different kind of major. (Photo: AP)

The soft fairways and receptive greens at Medinah have led to scores lower than most expect in a major. But, AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson says, the excellence of this PGA Championship can be found in the quality of the play.

By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer

MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- Par is not always sacred at the PGA Championship.

Of the 70 players who showed up Saturday at Medinah Country with hopes of winning the final major of the year, none had a black number next to his name to signal a score over par.

The course might be the longest in major championship history, but is soft and lush. A few hours after the cut was made at even-par 144 -- matching the PGA Championship record for lowest cut in relation to par -- rain pounded it and made the greens feel even more like a sponge. Thick clouds, like marshmallows, hung over the Chicago area for the bulk of the third round.

That's what Medinah has been like this week -- a marshmallow.

And that's not what anyone expects at a major, especially at a venerable place like Medinah that has hosted three U.S Opens, including the year Lou Graham won in a playoff after finishing at 3-over 287.

Is this a major? Or is it the Western Open dressed up like a major?

Clearly, the PGA Championship has dealt with an identity crisis over the years.

The Masters is the only major played at the same course. The U.S. Open is known as the toughest test in golf. The British Open is the oldest championship, the only one played on links courses. And the PGA Championship is, well, the other major.

The PGA of America has tried to pump up its major as having the strongest field -- 93 out of the top 100 this week -- and lately as "Glory's Last Shot" because it is the last chance of the year to win a Grand Slam event.

In fact, it has become one of the best majors -- certainly the most exciting -- as long as everyone doesn't get hung up on par.

"The low score wins every week," Olin Browne said Friday. "As long as you're not Roberto De Vicenzo."

That was a reference to the Argentine who missed out on a playoff at the Masters in 1968 when he signed for a wrong score in the final round, giving Bob Goalby the green jacket.

The perception of the PGA Championship isn't always helped when it goes to courses that have held the U.S. Open, and this year was a classic reminder. Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot at 5-over 285. The last time a major was held at Winged Foot, Davis Love III won by the PGA Championship five shots at 11-under 269 in 1997.

But that's merely a product of the calendar.

The difficulty of any golf course starts with rock-hard greens, which is a far tougher task in August than it is in June. The summer is just getting started at the U.S. Open, and even though it can be stifling hot, the turf generally is firm and fast.

It gets very muggy in the Midwest in August, and thunderstorms are common.

That might explain why the last time a PGA Championship was won with a score over par was in 1976 at Congressional, when Dave Stockton shot 1-over 281. Look back no further than June to find the last U.S. Open champion over par, and to Carnoustie in 1999 for the last time that happened at the British Open.

History is loaded with examples of how different a course plays in June than August.

Nick Price captured the 1994 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, a demanding course in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at 11-under 269. When the U.S. Open showed up in the summer of 2001, Retief Goosen won a playoff after finishing 4-under 276.

Jerry Pate won the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club, leaping into the lake after finishing at 3-under 277. David Toms won the PGA Championship on the same course 25 years later, making a clutch par on the final hole for a 15-under 265.

True, the PGA of America has a slightly different concept in setting up the golf course. It doesn't go to great lengths to protect par, opting for a test that his challenging but fair.

Low scores don't make winning a major any easier.

Toms had Phil Mickelson on his heels throughout the back nine, surging ahead only when Mickelson three-putted the 16th, staying there by deciding to lay up short of the lake on the par-4 closing hole and making an 8-foot par save.

Someone asked Adam Scott on Friday if he thought the greens would get firmer on the weekend, and the 26-year-old Aussie showed great diplomacy in responding, "I think it's a little late for that."

"I always like to see the courses playing firm," Scott said, and he's not alone. "But it's rewarding good play. I'm sure it's a bit softer than they want them."

The emphasis should be on the quality of play, not the score on the card.

And the PGA Championship has delivered over the past several years. Shaun Micheel might have been a surprising winner at Oak Hill in 2003, but no one played better that week. Ditto for Rich Beem at Hazeltine, when he survived Tiger Woods closing with four straight birdies to win in 2002.

Love was playing the same course as everyone else at Winged Foot, and his golf was simply superior. He won by five shots over Justin Leonard, a performance some consider to be just as strong as Woods' 12-shot victory at the Masters.

One could argue that fluke winners are more likely at the U.S. Open, such as 1996 at Oakland Hills, when Tom Lehman's seemingly perfect tee shot on the 18th hole took a strange hop into a bunker, leaving him no shot at the green. Steve Jones ended up with the victory.

Sure, the conditions are soft at Medinah.

The course yielded 60 rounds under par on Thursday, a record that lasted all of one day when 61 subpar rounds were posted Friday. But the leader board has been packed with players on top of their game, and the winner will easily be identified come Sunday afternoon.

He'll be the guy with the lowest score -- no matter what that score is.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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