By T.J. Auclair, Junior Editor
MEDINAH, Ill. -- The anticipation of the first round of a PGA Championship might never have been as enormous as it is for this one here at Medinah Country Club.
Thanks to the PGA of America's traditional system of pairing the year's first three major winners for the first 36 holes, no one will have to wait long to see golf's 8:30 a.m. dream pairing Thursday: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and ...
... Geoff Ogilvy?
With all due respect to the 29-year-old Australian who won the U.S. Open and has contended in a number of majors, Thursday and Friday will be all about the game's two biggest stars.
Mickelson, the reigning PGA Champion, gained entry into this envied pairing with his win at the Masters. Woods, of course, got his spot when he won the British Open at Hoylake just a few weeks back.
This will be just the third time in a major that Woods and Mickelson have been in the same group. The first time it happened was at the 1997 PGA Championship, where both players tied for 29th. They were also paired in the final round of the 2001 Masters, where Woods won for the second time and Mickelson tied for second.
With all the hype generated by the meeting of two Goliaths to start the tournament, neither seems to be thinking all that much about it.
"Well, I think it'll be loud either way," said Woods, who won the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. "There will be obviously a bunch of people following our group. Obviously, you have the three major championship winners this year in the same group, so that's always one of the premier pairings of the PGA.
"And then obviously the fans that Phil has and that obviously the fans I have, it'll make for a very loud atmosphere," he added. "But in either case, you've still got to place the golf ball correctly and you've got to make putts. Granted, it will be loud, but you've got to go out there and place the golf ball where you need to place it."
"I would think that 8:30 in the morning is pretty early on a Thursday, and to be on the 10th tee way out in the middle of nowhere, I don't think there's going to be many people out there."
While all the talk is centered on Tiger and Phil, Ogilvy can't be overlooked. Aside from his win at the U.S. Open, Ogilvy tied for 16th in both the Masters and the British Open this year.
"I had four weeks off before the British Open, and usually when that happens, even if you're practicing enough, like your scoring ability kind of goes away," Ogilvy said. "You're scrambling for pars and you feel like you play all right. Everyone who plays golf knows if you take a bit of time off, your short game and putting isn't as sharp. Your ball striking is okay but you can't score. It was the reverse. I just started hitting it not very well at the British Open, but my scoring was really good, so that was kind of a weird one."
Aside from Mickelson, Woods and Ogilvy, there are a slew of potential contenders. Jim Furyk, the No. 3 player in the world, heads that distinguished list, if, for no other reason, than he won the last major championship played in the Chicago area (Olympia Fields, 2003 U.S. Open). Furyk tied for eighth at Medinah in 1999.
"I liked the golf course when we played it back in 1999," Furyk said. "It's a wonderful layout, it's challenging, I think it's a great test and a great town for a major championship. I played well here, and on top of that, Chicago has been pretty good to me with the U.S. Open and Western Open at Cog Hill. I always enjoy coming back, and hopefully I can have a good week."
South African Ernie Els is vying for his first major win since the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. In his first start since returning from knee surgery, Els won the 2006 Dunhill Championships on the European Tour and followed it up with runner-up finishes in both the South African Open and the Dubai Desert Classic. He didn't do much by his standards the rest of this season until his third-place finish at Hoylake.
"The PGA, my record is not terrible but it's not great in this tournament, not like the Open or The Masters," said Els, whose highest finish in a PGA was a tie for third in 1995. "Obviously I'm looking forward to try and complete the Grand Slam. That's my own little goal that I want to achieve in my career.
"Obviously I haven't won the PGA or the Masters. Those are the two events that I'm really chasing," he explained. "That's why I'm happy to be playing on a great golf course like this one because I feel like I have a good chance of winning this week."
Chris DiMarco is another player looking to rack up that first major victory. He's lost in playoffs twice -- once at the 2004 Masters and the 2004 PGA Championship, then he finished second to Woods at the British Open in July.
Whoever wins at Medinah will have earned it. At 7,561 yards, it will play as the longest course in major championship history.
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