Poor Chaska. Three weeks ago the Minneapolis suburb was primping
for its close-up. Come see Tiger Woods win the Grand Slam!
Tickets to next week's PGA Championship at Hazeltine had sold out
months ago; scalpers were planning to clean up. Chaska might
quintuple its population of about 18,000 during PGA week. CBS
might rack up the highest ratings in golf history. Minnesota
hadn't been so jazzed since Prince changed his name to a glyph.
Then the Slam went splat. In the same way a butterfly's sneeze
can trigger a hurricane 10,000 miles away, a sleetstorm in
Scotland rained on Chaska's parade. Woods, in the worst weather
this side of Perdition, shot 81 on Saturday at Muirfield. In
those few hours the 2002 PGA slipped from Slam Central back to
its usual role as the year's most minor major. Turns out the
Twins didn't get contracted, but the PGA did, and now its site
might as well be Chaska, Alaska.
At least that's the party line. But like the Independent Party
governor, the party line is too bald and too simple. In fact,
what happened at the British Open makes the PGA better, not
worse, because a fight is more fun than a coronation. Instead of
being the fourth leg of a Slam, this PGA could be a major test of
the game's most vital question: Is golf more than Tiger?
The British Open suggests that the answer is yes. Even with Woods
a mile off the lead, the tournament gave us thrills (Gary
Evans!), lorry wrecks (Monty!), a great new personality (viva
Thomas Levet!) and, in the end, a worthy big-name winner in Ernie
Els. It scored big with TV viewers, proving that millions will
watch great golf even if it's Tiger-free.
Hazeltine has a chance to advance the plot. The course should be
equal to the task. It was ridiculed at first--in 1970 Dave Hill
famously and unflatteringly compared it to a farm. But Rees
Jones, the Open Doctor, has cured Hazeltine's chronic
pasture-ization. He stretched the par-5 3rd hole to 636 yards and
straightened and demonized the tricky 15th. At 7,355 yards the
course will favor big hitters. Woods might well close out the
best year in modern memory by winning his third major of '02 and
his seventh in the last 11. (Remember that he was 10 under par in
rounds 1, 2 and 4 at Muirfield, where six under made the
playoff.) Or, better yet, he might not.
We might see a second straight major for Els, hinting that he
really is Tiger's peer. Or maybe a victory for Sergio Garcia,
regripping 20 or 30 or 100 times before he stiffs an eight-iron
at 18. A young gun might shoot out of the pack--smiley Matt
Kuchar, baby-faced David Gossett, hungry Charles Howell--to make
galleries swoon. Better still would be a comeback: John Daly
parks his van behind the clubhouse, packs his bag with Twinkies
and cigs and wins his second PGA. Or maybe Daly's opposite wins:
David Toms defends his PGA title, giving short hitters a hero and
a motto, Grip it and drip it!
My PGA daydream goes like this: Phil Mickelson stands on the 18th
tee on Sunday tied for the lead. Of course he hits driver, and of
course he loses it in uncharted Chaska. Phil finds his ball under
a bush, behind a tree in a Dairy Queen parking lot. He could hit
driver from there--hit it through the drive-through window, over
the dumpster, a Ford Explorer and 600 trees--and try to reach the
green. But no: "Lanny, you're not going to believe this, but Phil
is going to take his medicine. He's chipping back to the
fairway." Then Mickelson hammers a five-iron. "Lanny, that's
right at the flag...and it's in the hole! Do you believe in
miracles? Yes! Mickelson wins a major!"
August is a pivotal month for golf. A great PGA at Hazeltine
would help cement golf's position as a major sport, right up
there with football, baseball and hoops. But a drab PGA could
hurt the game, returning fans to the all-about-Tiger tour. One
look at the post-Jordan NBA tells you all you need to know about
the danger of focusing too much on one guy.
Is golf more than Tiger? We'll find out next week.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK SOMETHING ELS A second straight major for Els would help cement golf's status as a big-time sport.
Woods might close out the best year in modern memory by winning
his third major of '02 and his seventh in the last 11. Or,
better yet, he might not.