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Major Vote Of Confidence The much-maligned PGA Championship shapes up as the year's top major

I can't wait for next week's PGA Championship at the Atlanta
Athletic Club. So often dismissed as the most minor of the
majors, the PGA could actually turn into the best of the bunch
this year. Traditionally the period at the end of every golf
season's narrative, it figures this time around to be more like
an exclamation point. Golf's most exclusive tee time comes during
the first two rounds of the PGA, when the winners of the year's
three previous majors are paired together. That David Duval has
finally earned a place alongside Tiger Woods goes a long way
toward explaining why this PGA looms so large.

A victory by either Woods or Duval--or for that matter Phil
Mickelson or Sergio Garcia--would provide welcome clarity to what
has been a disjointed season. Woods was brilliant for about a
month this spring, but he's basically been a nonfactor since
then. In his absence we've been given the Summer of the Great
Gaffe, from the 72nd-hole blunders by Retief Goosen and Stewart
Cink at Southern Hills to the brain cramp suffered by Ian Woosnam
and his beleaguered caddie at Royal Lytham. Meanwhile, Mickelson
and Garcia have played the most consistently fine golf week in
and week out, only to falter when it has mattered most, on the
weekend at the majors. In short, the plotlines of this season
have been more confounding than anything you'll find in Memento,
and that's where the PGA comes in.

Yeah, it has the coolest trophy of all the majors, the sterling
silver Wanamaker Trophy, but the PGA delivers something more
precious--sterling silver history. If you made a list of the most
memorable majors of the '90s, easily half would be PGAs: John
Daly crashing the party in '91, the Paul Azinger-Greg Norman
playoff of '93, Nick Price's coronation the following year, Davis
Love III finally finding fulfillment at the end of the rainbow in
'97, the Garcia-Woods tango in '99, and then Woods's thrilling
defense in 2000, edging a game Bob May. All that drama elevated
the PGA to a different level.

A tournament is only as good as its champions, and Jack Nicklaus
won five PGAs, a personal haul exceeded only by his six green
jackets. The Masters is where Woods, too, has announced his
dominance, but the PGA is the tournament in which he has earned
his competitive bona fides. The disparity between his past
performance and present form adds one more layer of intrigue to
the 2001 PGA. It has been a lost summer for Woods, and he needs
to make a statement in the season's final major, especially given
the company he will be keeping over the first two rounds.

Still only 29, Duval has proven to be a slow learner capable of
mighty streaks once he's made sense of the syllabus. Duval spent
his first 2 1/2 years on Tour kicking away chances at a first
victory, but when he finally broke through he tore off three
straight. Now, having at last won his first major championship,
he could easily take two in a row, especially with the PGA being
played in Atlanta, the city where he went to college, at Georgia
Tech. If the Woods-Duval rivalry is going to move beyond the
hypothetical, this PGA is the place to get it started.

Back when he was younger and considerably brasher, Duval said,
"Would I be thrilled to win the PGA? Of course. It is a major
championship, and it would be a great honor. But would it mean
as much as the Masters, U.S. Open or British Open? No offense
intended, but no."

Duval is a noted book lover, but clearly golf history was not on
his reading list. You can make the case that only the U.S. Open
has a better tradition than the PGA. By the time Bobby Jones
threw together his first cookout in Augusta, the PGA was 18 years
old and had celebrated Walter Hagen as champion five times and
Gene Sarazen thrice. For all the misty-eyed blather about the
British Open's 19th-century roots, the tournament didn't really
become a compelling event until Arnold Palmer's back-to-back wins
in 1961 and '62, by which time Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam
Snead had combined to win seven PGAs.

Once again the PGA sets up as the season's most intriguing
tournament. Whoever wins next week will be elevated for the
achievement. Here's hoping it's the right player, who can, in
turn, take the PGA even higher.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND If you made a list of the most memorable majors of the '90s, the Garcia-Woods tango in '99 would be on it.