The last time golf fans saw Oakland Hills — the venue for the 90th PGA Championship, which starts tomorrow — was during the 2004 Ryder Cup, when the Americans suffered one of the event's all-time drubbings. Captain Hal Sutton's perceived masterstroke of pairing Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson, the game's top two players, in a virtual remake of the 1971 and 1973 Jack Nicklaus/Arnold Palmer pairing, completely backfired. The pair posted zero points from two matches, thus giving the Europeans a huge psychological edge that they rode all the way to a nine-point margin of victory.
Eight members of that winning European side are back in Bloomfield Township, Mich., 20 miles north of downtown Detroit, for another try at becoming the first European since Scotland's Tommy Armour (although even he had become a American citizen by then) in 1930 to win the year's final major. No doubt each European all experienced a jolt of energy earlier in the week when they cast their eyes out over the superlative 1916 Donald Ross course and reminisced over that happy occasion four years ago. But it probably soon passed as the realization that they are here on their own this time hit home. Without a raucous band of flag-waving fans to support them, teammates to lean back on, or an experienced captain in Bernhard Langer from whom to seek wise counsel, Oakland Hills must seem an entirely different prospect this week.
Besides, the 2008 version of the club's South Course at Oakland Hills is quite different from that of 2004. The infamous greens — one of which Tom Lehman described as "pretty obnoxious" at the 1996 U.S. Open and which Jack Nicklaus called the most dramatic set of Ross greens still in existence — have more or less remained untouched. But Rees Jones, son of Robert Trent Jones, who modified the original design for the 1951 U.S. Open, has truly done a job on the rest of the course that Ben Hogan famously referred to as "this monster" 57 years ago.
Back tees have been built on 12 holes, while existing back tees were extended on three more. In all, 318 yards have been added to the course, bringing its total length up to 7,395 yards. Thirteen fairway bunkers have been built and numerous other bunkers, both fairway and greenside, were enlarged, deepened, and moved closer to the landing areas and putting surfaces. A couple of fairways were shifted, nearly every par 4 and par 5 has been narrowed, and the rough between the putting surface and pond at the 16th hole has been removed, making it much easier to spin a short iron back into the water.
It's another attempt to offer some resistance to today's stronger players and their NASA-inspired equipment, of course. But how tough the course plays will ultimately depend on the weather. There is some rain in the forecast, for the first two days at least, and even the chance of thunderstorms. If the meteorologists have it right, the course might be soft and holding tomorrow and Friday, in which case it will play longer, and pulling the clubhead through the rough will become tougher. But the correct plateaus of the heavily contoured greens will be considerably easier to find and scores will consequently plummet.
Heavy rain before the 1979 PGA Championship, the last time the event was played at Oakland Hills, resulted in relatively low scores; David Graham beating Ben Crenshaw in a play-off after the pair had finished 72 holes tied at 272, eight-under-par. Sixty-six sub-par rounds were recorded that year and nine players broke 280. Seven years previously, at Oakland Hills' first PGA Championship, the course played much firmer and not even the winner, Gary Player, could break 280.
Surely the man most likely to win on a course like this will be a proven major champion. And yet five of the eight major winners at Oakland Hills (it has hosted six U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships) won their first or only grand slam event here. With 97 of the world's top 100 players in the 156-man field (only 27 of whom have won a major), it's perfectly possible that he who takes home the Wanamaker Trophy will be joining the 119 other players in history with only one major title.
Neither Kenny Perry nor Anthony Kim has yet to triumph at one of the big four events. But they have been playing as well as anyone this summer and no one would be the least bit surprised if either of them won. Perry overcame the immense pressure he put on himself in virtually guaranteeing his place on the U.S. Ryder Cup team with his 10th, 11th, and 12th PGA Tour titles, and has risen to 17th in the world from 92nd at the start of the year. Kim, meanwhile, has won twice this year, and the 29 he shot on the back nine in the second round of the Canadian Open two weeks ago, after having stumbled to the turn with a 40, could well be his most impressive golf of the season.
Many would happily take either player over the highest ranked man in the field, Phil Mickelson, despite his solid performance at Firestone last week. The inconsistencies, unpredictability, and the occasional high number that continue to plague his game make him an unconvincing bet, however, even though his preparation for this tournament has been typically thorough.
Coming sharply into the reckoning after his win last week is Vijay Singh, who reminded us that, at 45, he's still a world-beater. Lee Westwood is certainly due and more than capable, but so are literally dozens of players here this week, including 54-year-old Jay Haas, who won the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill in New York three months ago.
There will be added incentive to shine for a group of players still in the reckoning for one of captain Paul Azinger's four Ryder Cup picks. That said, no one should really be thinking about a tournament still six weeks away. Especially when taking on the course that more than one player this week has called the hardest in the world.