Golf history is in the making next week. If there are no withdrawals, the 101st US PGA Championship will be the first major to feature every player in the world’s top 100. With all due respect to the other 99, all eyes will be on one man at Bethpage State Park on Long Island and that, of course, is Tiger Woods.
After fearing two years ago that his career could be over due to back injuries, his bid to become the game’s greatest player has been re-ignited. Having ended an 11-year drought by claiming a 15th major in last month’s Masters, matching the record tally of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus is a possibility again. Especially when the next two majors – this, one then next month’s US Open – are taking place at venues where Woods fancied his chances even before he claimed a fifth Green Jacket.
Over the Black Course at Bethpage, the public course that has a sign warning that it is “extremely difficult” and recommended “only for highly-skilled golfers”, he led from start to finish when winning the 2002 US Open. That success came two years after he had stormed to a 15-shot success in the same event at Pebble Beach, which staged that US Open.
“He’s got a terrible record around Bethpage and Pebble Beach, hasn’t he?” joked Lee Westwood, speaking at this week’s Betfred British Masters, in reply to being asked if Woods can take up where he left off in the season’s opening major in Georgia. “No, I envisage him to be in contention at those two. Who knows with Portrush (where The Open is being held in July for the first time since 1951).
“But he is probably at the stage of his career where he’s just trying to peak for the major championships, because let’s face it, if he wins like a regular Tour event, there will be another Tour event, but if he wins major championships, that’s kind of where he’s moved up another level.”
Woods is bidding for his fifth US PGA Championship victory, having first picked up the Rodman Wanamaker Trophy in 1999 before repeating the trick 12 months later then pulling off another back-to-back double in 2006 and 2007.
“Well, class is permanent, that’s what they always say, and he proved it,” added Westwood of the 43-year-old having returned to winning ways in majors as he capitalised on Francesco Molinari letting a two-shot lead slip on the back nine in the Masters. “He proved that once you’re a winner and you know how to win a golf tournament, regardless of whether you’ve not won one for a while or been in contention, you can switch back into it.
“He played well. He wasn’t spectacular, he wasn’t knocking out all the flags. I think that’s the sort of preconception that people get when he was in his prime, he was knocking out all the flags, holing all the putts, hitting all the fairways. He wasn’t.
“A lot of tournaments he kind of just did enough to win the tournament, and that’s what I got a feel for the Sunday of the Masters. When people were knocking it in the water on 12, you could see a little glint in his eye like the door had opened for him, just to not be too aggressive, just to push it slightly open by hitting the middle of the green and then making a 3, don’t make the same mistake as them.
“The way he played and where he hit it coming in, he was hitting it into the safe spots some of the time and birdieing the par-5s like he should and getting up-and-down like he should and making those five and six-footers like he should. I just thought it was a typical professional Tiger Woods performance, really.”