Georgia on their mind

DULUTH, Georgia, Reuters

Rain threatened to turn the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club into a pliant giant and hand a huge advantage to Tiger Woods in his quest for a third successive PGA Championship.

Sunday’s rain showers were followed by two downpours on Monday making the ultra-long, par-70 layout at Bobby Jones’s home club favor the big hitters even more for the season’s last major championship starting on Thursday.

Woods, apparently burnt out after completing his ‘Tiger Slam’ of four successive major wins with his Masters triumph earlier this season, has taken some time off to recharge his batteries before trying to become the first player since Walter Hagen in 1926 to win the PGA three times in a row.

The 25-year-old American, who won a playoff against Bob May last year at Valhalla, and took a one-shot win over Sergio Garcia in the 1999 PGA at Medinah, has the power to conquer the 7,213-yard, par-70 layout, but must be accurate as well.

“You’ve got to keep the ball in the fairway,” Woods said, referring to the challenge of reaching the greens on some of the long holes should an errant tee shot settle down into the choking Bermuda rough.

But Woods has struggled with his accuracy off the tee and paid the price at both the U.S. Open and the British Open, where he failed to seriously contend as his wondrous winning streak in the majors came to a halt.

Four par-4s surpass 460 yards, and three of the par-3s exceed 200 yards and demand carries over water hazards.

South African Retief Goosen, who became the first player other than Woods to win a major in 12 months after a playoff victory at the U.S. Open at Southern Hills, said he thought Woods could be poised for a return to the winner’s circle.

“This is perfectly suited for him,” said Goosen. “Most of the trouble he will be able to clear with his driver. At Southern Hills, I only hit driver one or two times. Here I need to hit driver on just about every hole.”

“It is a very fair golf course,” Goosen added. “The course is set up great. If you play well you are going to score.

“You can make big numbers on the last few holes. The last four holes are tough with the water. You mis-hit a shot there and you make double. It is a very good finish.”

David Duval, who captured the British Open crown at Royal Lytham last month for his first major title, sounded confident of his chances of starting a major title streak of his own.

“I think this course suits me well, like Lytham suited me well,” said Duval. “I feel strong and I’m swinging the club well.”

Duval’s Open triumph left world number two Phil Mickelson bearing the dubious title of ‘best player yet to have won a major’, but the long-hitting lefty could also benefit from softened fairways, which may not provide extra roll on tee shots, and receptive greens.

Straight hitting Colin Montgomerie could also thrive along with long-hitting fellow-Briton Lee Westwood — two more players seeking their first major title.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia, so close to breaking through in 1999 against Woods when he was a marvellously exuberant 19 year-old, is also a serious threat to claim the crown after winning twice this season on the U.S. Tour.

Garcia has added motivation as he tries to provide European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance with a free wild card choice by shooting up the Ryder points list into the top 10 with a win.

Players with more modest power off the tee will have to have the rest of their game in perfect order to succeed.

Double Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany shed light on the challenge offered by the Highlands course by describing his practice at the 490-yard, par-4 finishing hole.

“I just played the 18th hole here with Loren Roberts and we both hit very good drives and both needed a 3-wood to get it over the water,” said Langer. “So it just shows how long and how tough it is playing.”

In response to six-hour rounds at last year’s PGA, which resulted in groups having to return early Friday morning to finish their opening rounds despite good weather conditions, tournament officials have decided to use split tees for the first time in 30 years.

Half the 150-player field will begin from the first tee and the other half will start from the 10th. Officials believe that will save some 45 minutes in total playing time for the round.

Woods will start from the 10th hole at 805 a.m (1245 GMT) on Thursday in a threesome with the season’s other major championship winners, Goosen and Duval.

Following Woods on the tee are a trio of former PGA champions — Vijay Singh of Fiji, Steve Elkington of Australia and Zimbabwe’s Nick Price.

Fifteen minutes before Woods tees off, the threesome of Ernie Els of South Africa, Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain and Tom Watson, who still needs a PGA title to complete a career grand slam, set off from the first tee.

Featured threesomes in the afternoon include the 100 p.m. (1740 GMT) group of Colin Montgomerie, Justin Leonard and Mark Calcavecchia, just ahead of Mickelson, Tom Lehman and Lee Janzen.

At roughly the same time, Garcia tees off from the 10th along with Mark O’Meara and Jim Furyk.