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Pga Provides Also-Rans With Major Opportunity Mickelsons Of Golf World Seek One Title To Validate Greatness

By Ron Sirak Associated Press

The dour-faced little man trudged through the PGA Championship lugging the almost visible weight of expectations.

At age 34 and after spending half his life as a professional golfer, he was known as the best player not to win a major championship.

It’s a situation Corey Pavin knew all too well, as did Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger, Tom Kite and Steve Elkington before they finally got their major.

It’s a pressure Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie still live with.

It was a pressure that finally ended on that day 50 years ago at Portland Golf Club in Oregon when Ben Hogan won his first major championship. He had won 30 tournaments, but never a big one.

The situation became almost desperate by the 1946 PGA. Earlier that year, Hogan had a 12-foot putt to win the Masters and didn’t even make a playoff, missing from 30 inches for the tie. Later in the summer at the U.S. Open, he missed a playoff again by one stroke.

Things started badly for Hogan in the 36-hole match-play final against Porky Oliver at the PGA, and he was 3-down after 18 holes. Then Hogan shot 30 on the front nine and played 14 holes 8 under par to win 6-and-4.

It was the beginning of a run in which Hogan won nine major championships in eight years despite missing an entire year after the crippling car crash in 1949.

Only two players who start Thursday at Valhalla Golf Club in the 78th PGA Championship have a chance to add to the kind of numbers Hogan put up.

Masters champion Nick Faldo looks for his seventh major title. Tom Watson, who won in June for the first time since 1987 and needs the PGA to become the fifth player to complete the career grand slam, seeks his ninth major.

While Watson still has a suspect putter, Faldo is playing brilliantly, as he showed at the British Open, and has to be a favorite at Valhalla.

But history seems to be saying that this PGA could be the breakthrough tournament for someone like Mickelson, Love or Montgomerie. Or perhaps there is another Steve Jones out there ready to take the big step up.

Certainly, short of Faldo - and the always threatening shadow of Greg Norman - there is no imposing golfer.

The 27 major championships played in the 1990s have been won by 21 different golfers. Only Faldo with four, and Nick Price and John Daly with two have been able to win more than once during that time period.

Beginning with the 1993 Masters, the last 15 major championships have been won by 14 different people - Price is the lone two-time winner - and eight of those were winning their first major.

The pattern could continue at the PGA. It has the strongest field of any of the four major championships with the top-50 golfers in the Sony world rankings saying they are coming, though Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer could pull out because of injuries.

“There’s just a host of players who can do well here,” said Elkington, the defending champion. “But I do think the player that wins here will have to hit his irons better than anyone else.”

That’s because the fairways are rather spacious, making accuracy off the tee not as important as usual, and the course doesn’t play brutally long. The tricky part is the two-tiered greens and the thick, bluegrass rough that will be most difficult when hitting delicate pitch shots around the greens.

“Because the greens are big and they are divided up by different slopes and tiers, it’s almost like you’re playing to a small green,” Elkington said. “If you’re not on those right tiers, it’s going to be very difficult to two-putt.”

Elkington names three strong short-game players as top contenders at Valhalla.

“A guy like Nick Price is a natural sort for this tournament - very good iron player. Greg Norman, obviously,” Elkington said. “Phil Mickelson would do well because he putts so well and has a good imagination around these greens.”

Mickelson, just 26 and already an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, knows the pressure of not winning a major championship.

“I don’t know if I would really say it is pressure so much as it would be higher expectation,” said Mickelson, a three-time winner this year.

“And I think that because I have won eight times and have had a couple of good years on tour, the expectation not only of myself but of the media and the public should be higher.”

Mickelson was third in the Masters, where accuracy off the tee is secondary to approach shots and putting, but he was 94th in the U.S. Open and 41st in the British.

“I’m just kind of waiting to break through in the big tournaments,” Mickelson said. “I believe in the past my game has shown that it’s able to compete in majors.”

Montgomerie has also shown he can compete in the majors but needs to prove he can win one. He lost the 1994 U.S. Open and last year’s PGA in playoffs. He challenged this year on the final nine at the U.S. Open, but made bogeys when he needed birdies down the stretch.

Love finished in the top 10 in four of the last seven majors, including a tie for second with Lehman at the U.S. Open behind Jones.

Perhaps for one of them - Mickelson, Montgomerie or Love - the wait will be over. Or perhaps the person who will know the thrill Hogan felt 50 years ago is just another guy named Jones. xxxx PGA CHAMPIONSHIP When: Friday through Sunday Where: Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky., a 7,144-yard, par-72 Jack Nicklaus design opened in 1986. Slope: 142. Rating: 74.9. Course record: 66 by Nicklaus in 1986 and Larry Mize in 1987. Prize money: To be announced. At least equal to last year’s purse of $2 million, of which $360,000 went to the winner. Defending champion: Steve Elkington in a playoff with Colin Montgomerie. Most PGA Championships: Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus (5); Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead (3); 12 players with two. Lowest score: 267 (17 under par) by Elkington and Montgomerie in 1995 at Riviera Country Club. Television: Thursday and Friday, TBS 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. PDT; Saturday and Sunday, TBS 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; CBS 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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Tags: golf

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