HAVEN, Wisconsin, AP
Tiger Woods stared down the fairway on the 569-yard (518-meter) 16th hole at Whistling Straits, with Lake Michigan looming large on the left. He looked over his shoulder at Ernie Els, who was 20 yards (18 meters) behind him and waiting for the green to clear on the par-3 12th hole, which hugs the right side of the lake.
It was a fitting scene Tuesday morning at the PGA Championship.
Woods and Els — No. 1 and 2 in the world — were standing on the same tee box, headed in opposite directions.
The majors used to be Woods’ private domain. He won seven out of 11 through the 2002 U.S. Open to build such a huge lead that it looked like he would never lose his No. 1 ranking.
Woods comes into the PGA Championship having gone nine consecutive majors without winning, and he could lose his No. 1 ranking for the first time in five years.
“It’s never easy to win a major championship,” Woods said. “I think all of you guys realize that now.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Els, who has finished in the top 10 in his last four majors and was on the cusp of winning the first three this year. He arrived at Whistling Straits with his third chance at a major this year to replace Woods at No. 1, needing at least a runner up finish at the PGA.
“I’ve got to try and play as well as I can and take care of this week and see what happens after that,” Els said. “But it will be great.”
Woods hammered his drive down the right side of the 16th fairway. Els hit a crisp 7-iron just over a knobby bunker to within 15 feet (4.5 meters) of the pin at No. 12.
Then, they walked to the back of the tee to shake hands and get down to business.
“What the hell do you do on No. 11?” Els asked him. “Go for the green in two?”
No matter where they are in the world ranking and what they’ve done in the majors, everyone faces the same dilemma this week at the longest course at 7,514 yards (6,838 meters)) in major championship history.
Every player is trying to figure out how to navigate Whistling Straits in wind that can blow so hard that Woods and Els both ripped drivers on No. 18 — a 500-yard (455-meter) par 4 — and still needed a 3-wood to reach the green.
For Woods, this could be the ultimate test.
One reason his game has slipped to a mortal level this year is his driving. He is 167th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, his lowest ranking since turning pro eight years ago.
Whistling Straits is no place to keep the driver in the bag.
“Considering most of the par 4s are nearly 500 yards (455 meters), yeah,” Woods said when asked if he would use his driver more at the PGA Championship than he did the other three majors. “The par 5s are about 600 yards(545 meters). I might use it on a couple of par 3s, as well. The golf course is set up (where) you can use driver quite a bit.”
Woods switched to a new driver in early July with a large club head (410cc) with a graphite shaft, and he has been pleased with the results. In fact, Woods is hard-pressed to find much wrong with his game, except the number of trophies (one) on his mantle.
He has had chances to win his last three tournaments, and settled for top 10s in all of them, including a tie for ninth last month in the British Open.
Still, his performance in the majors has been lacking.
Since his victory at Bethpage Black in 2002, Woods has had his worst finish in all four of the majors — a tie for 22nd at the Masters this year, a tie for 20th at the U.S. Open last year, a tie for 28th at the ‘02 British Open, and a tie for 39th at the PGA Championship last year at Oak Hill.
Suddenly, Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors no longer looks so close.
And all those guys chasing Woods no longer seem so far away.
Vijay Singh is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour this year and leads the money list. He also can move to No. 1 in the world, although it would require a victory at Whistling Straits and Woods missing the cut.
Phil Mickelson is No. 4 in the world and No. 1 in the majors this year, having won the Masters and missing out on a chance to win the U.S. and British Opens by one putt on the back nine of each. Mickelson has a chance to become the first player to finish in the top 3 in all four majors since the Masters began in 1934.
Lefty was asked if anyone would ever dominate the majors like Woods.
“I don’t think anybody thought there would be another player to dominate the way Nicklaus did in the majors, and then along came Tiger. So, I certainly would not rule it out,” Mickelson said. “I would expect it to happen again. I don’t know if it will be Tiger again — it very well could be. I don’t know if it will be another player of today’s crop or if it will come later on down the line.
“If nobody plays at that level, it’s a much more packed leaderboard.”
Woods says he can feel his game turning the corner, and his tie for third at the Buick Open two weeks ago seems to indicate that. Then again, Singh won the Buick by playing better golf and making more putts.
“Yes, he looks good,” Padraig Harrington said of Woods. “He looks like he’s coming back. There’s a lot of other good players who are capable of competing with him.”
Woods is only concerned with the biggest star of the week — Whistling Straits, which might have everyone’s number by the end of the week and could send tee shots in any number of directions.