Six years ago, golf's premier players navigated their way around the Straits on Lake Michigan, and found that Whistling Straits was worthy of serving as a respected new player on the roster of major championship venues. Fiji's Vijay Singh captured the 2004 PGA Championship, but not before posting a final-round 76 to land a spot in a playoff.
As the 92nd PGA Championship prepares to commence Thursday, playing to 7,507 yards – 29 yards shorter than in 2004 – one constant remains - a wide-open opportunity for any member of a world-class field.
In this season of increased superlative international play, the PGA Championship – once the stumbling block for major glory for any European – may prove another pathway to history.
The PGA Championship's 156-player field features a record 73 international players representing 22 countries, and 97 of the top 100 world-ranked players. Since 1994, the PGA Championship has hosted the most top 100-ranked players among golf's majors. The field also features 20 PGA Club Professionals representing 13 states, who earned a berth through the PGA Professional National Championship conducted in June.
This year's PGA Championship also contains yet another drama — it is the final event to determine the automatic eight qualifiers for the U. S. Ryder Cup Team that will compete against Europe in September in Wales. The final four Captain's selections will be announced Sept. 7 by Captain Corey Pavin, who is making his 21st appearance in the Championship. European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie is appearing in his 19th Championship.
An open opportunity for any international player to break through this week is not lost upon Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who snapped a 78-year European victory drought in the Championship with his 2008 triumph at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich.
"But the reason why there's more opportunity for the guys who haven't won is the fact that, as I say, they are seeing guys win for the first time," said Harrington. "Guys who play practice rounds with Graeme McDowell [the 2010 U.S. Open Champion], and the South African guys who play with Louis Oosthuizen [2010 Open Champion] now know what it takes to be a major champion. They have seen those guys' games and they have gone and won.
"So they have a much better measure of what it takes, rather than looking trying to judge what somebody's game is that you don't really know in terms of, say, somebody who doesn't know Tiger Woods could have a particular idea how he plays to win majors, but the guy who knows Graeme McDowell knows how he plays and knows that he won a major, and they know if they can play to that standard, they can win a major. It's more tangible."
Defending Champion Y.E. Yang of South Korea, who stunned the golf world last year by chasing down and passing four-time Champion Tiger Woods at Hazeltine National Golf Club, is one of 28 major champions in the field. Woods is the last U.S. player (2007) to capture the PGA Championship.
South Africa's Oosthuizen, who was a picture of calm at St. Andrews in winning the Open Championship in July, said that he also can see the wide-open race for a PGA Championship, and compared his chances along with fellow countryman, Trevor Immelman, who won the 2008 Masters.
"At the moment, anyone that tees off in any of these events can win it," said Oosthuizen. "You got such strong fields every week and it's not just three or four guys that stand out, it's probably 50 guys that stand out. So definitely when Trevor won the Masters, you know, knowing Trevor, playing with him a bit and you see that he's also just, he's, you can play with him, you can do it. So it definitely helped me a lot in any tournament. I just think it's getting to a stage where you can have, in majors, you can have different winners all the time."
England's Paul Casey, one of Europe's hopes for first-time major glory, reflected on the subtleties of Whistling Straits, which he said was "a visually intimidating course."
Casey had an opinion on what type player is best suited for The Straits.
"I don't know, it's a tricky one. This is a links look but it's not you can't run the golf ball in on this golf course," said Casey. "It's a ‘through-the-air' golf course. Length is obviously an advantage. Having said that, if you look at 2004, it was Vijay, Justin Leonard, Chris DiMarco in a playoff. So, if it's a power player, then maybe it's somebody who drives the ball. But, a power player, they have to drive it well and they have to keep it in play. Or, it's going to be somebody who is very precise and very accurate with long irons, hybrids, maybe somebody like a Luke Donald. I'm going with a power player. I'm going to favor myself here."
Golf's best professionals have been competing for more than 90 years for the Championship's coveted Wanamaker Trophy. Past Champions span both the legendary and recent stars of the game: Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson.
Tickets will be available for purchase through the 2010 PGA Championship Web site, www.pga2010.com, or by phone at (800) PGA-GOLF.