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Golfers return to Medinah with plot lines like it's 1999

Thursday, August 17, 2006

MEDINAH, Ill. -- The longest course for a major. A flap over the Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods hitting his stride.

The PGA Championship returns to Medinah Country Club, and it doesn't seem as though much has changed in the seven years since it last was held at this tree-lined course outside Chicago.

The controversy over the Ryder Cup this time is not about money, but the points system.

The course was the longest for a Grand Slam event at sea level in 1999 at 7,401 yards. Now it measures 7,561 yards and is the longest for any major championship at any altitude.

As for Woods, he has a little less hair and a lot more trophies.

Medinah brought him one of his most important titles in the 1999 PGA Championship, when Woods was going through a 2 1/2-year drought in the majors that raised questions about whether his 1997 Masters title was a fluke. He nearly blew a five-shot lead in the final round until making a crucial par save on the 17th hole and hanging on for a one-shot victory over 19-year-old Sergio Garcia.

That turned out to be a springboard to one of the most dominant stretches in golf. Starting with his victory at Medinah, Woods won 18 of his next 36 events on the PGA Tour, including a 5-for-6 run through the majors.

A victory at Medinah could be part of another big run.

For the first time since the 2001 Masters, Woods goes into a major having won his previous two starts on the PGA Tour.

The first one was the British Open, when Woods hit driver only once at Royal Liverpool and wore out his long irons on his way to a two-shot victory. The next stop was the Buick Open, where he overpowered the course and won by three for his 50th career title.

"I saw him hit a few shots, and he had that kind of swagger ... that kind of strut he has when he's playing really well, that 'no one is beating me' look in his eye," U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. "He hasn't had that for a while. You don't think, 'Here we go again,' but you're happy that the best player in history is back playing the way he can."

Woods won that 2001 Masters after playing the final round with Phil Mickelson, beating him by two shots.

They haven't played together in a major since then, although that will change when the PGA Championship begins this morning. Leave it to the final major of the year to deliver the pairing everyone wants to see.

The PGA puts together the three major champions of the year for the first two rounds, and it should be quite a show.

"The expectations of Phil must be very high to knock Tiger off his pedestal," Michael Campbell said. "He's playing great right now. They're both playing great. It's going to be a great spectacle for all of us, really, to see these best two players in the world fight it out over the next four days."

For a dozen or so other players, more than just the Wanamaker Trophy is on the line.

This is the final qualifying event for the Ryder Cup -- the top 10 in the standings make the U.S. team, and captain Tom Lehman will announce his two picks on Monday. Some 90 players still have a mathematical chance.

It wasn't like this at Medinah in 1999, because the points system didn't feature such wild fluctuations. Hot stretches in the summer enabled unheralded players like Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich to climb into the top 10.

Right behind is John Rollins, who received more points for winning the B.C. Open than Chris DiMarco got as runner-up at the British Open.

It has caused the PGA of America to defend its new system before the Ryder Cup even has been played.

This beats the Ryder Cup flap at Medinah last time, when Woods, Mickelson, David Duval and Mark O'Meara were critical of the PGA of America for raking in a $23 million profit from the event. The players wanted some input on how the income was being spent and were accused of wanting to be paid for playing in the Ryder Cup.

Now, each player can direct $200,000 of the proceeds to the charity and college of his choice.

Lehman saw a positive connection between then and now. The last time the U.S. team won the Ryder Cup was in 1999, the year the team was finalized at Medinah.

"I think we've got a good karma going," he said. "I'm not too worried about the sideline issues."

All of it will be settled over the next four days on a meaty course that is longer, has undergone minor changes and is in far better shape than it was in 1999.

Perhaps the biggest change is on the par-3 17th, where the green has been lowered so that it's virtually on the same level as Lake Kadijah. That kept Woods from reliving his fondest memory of Medinah, the green where he holed an 8-foot par putt on the last day.

"I keep thinking about it in the brain, since it's no longer physically there," Woods said.

Woods wasn't around much Wednesday, the final day of practice, showing up late in the afternoon. Mickelson, winless since his Masters victory in April, stuck to his routine by playing golf on another course in the Chicago area, away from the bustle.

They are the star attractions, but so many others are just as hungry.

Jim Furyk had two good chances in the majors this year. Vijay Singh has gone seven majors without winning since the 2004 PGA Championship, and the 43-year-old Fijian is running out of time. Ernie Els showed some life at the British Open when he tied for third.

"It's the last major of the year, and everyone is gearing up for it," Campbell said.

The PGA likes to call this "Glory's Last Shot," and that's something else that hasn't changed.


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