Much at stake at PGA Championship

A deliberate game by its very nature, golf seems to hit warp speed this time of the year.

Just 18 days after Phil Mickelson’s name was engraved on the silver claret jug at Muirfield as the British Open champion, the first tee shot will be launched at Oak Hill for the PGA Championship. And thus will end another major championship season.

The PGA Championship has been called “Glory’s Last Shot,” and it takes on even greater importance to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, two of the game’s biggest stars.
Which one is more desperate to win at Oak Hill?

Woods is No. 1 again and likely to stay that way for the rest of the year. His four PGA Tour wins are twice as many as anyone else. He has a comfortable lead in the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average, one of the most reliable measures of who consistently plays the best. But he is on the verge of going five straight seasons without a major, the only measure that matters to Woods.

McIlroy, at this point, would settle for a trophy of any size. The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland has gone eight months since he last won a tournament, and his life and game have never been under so much scrutiny. He switched out all his equipment by signing with Nike in the offseason. He is changing management for the second time in less than two years. That bounce in his step seems to be missing. He looks lost at times.

Look back one year and not many would have guessed either player would be in this predicament.

McIlroy won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots, his second blowout victory in a major in as many years. He left Kiawah Island with the Wanamaker Trophy and the No. 1 ranking, and he did it wearing a red shirt on Sunday.

For the first time, Woods had a worthy opponent who was younger.

Woods ended another season without a major, though there were plenty of signs he was on his way back to the top of golf. He had three PGA Tour victories. He twice shared the 36-hole lead in majors. He was healthy enough to play a full schedule for the first time in five years.

One year later, the landscape for these two stars is far different.

“I’ve won two in the last two years. It would be great to continue that trend and win another this year and make it three years in a row,” McIlroy said. “You know he’s got 14 (majors). I’ve got two. So I’d better try and catch up. So I think I need one more than he does.”

Woods, who for years said a season cannot be considered great without a major, keeps trying to explain his 0-for-17 streak in the majors dating to his 14th title in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

“Even though I haven’t won a major championship in five years, I’ve been there in a bunch of them where I’ve had chances,” he said last month. “I just need to keep putting myself there, and eventually I’ll get some.”

That’s not entirely accurate, depending on the definition of a serious chance of winning.

Since returning from the scandal in his personal life after the 2009 season, Woods hasn’t been a factor in the final hour of any major. He didn’t go into Sunday at a major closer than four shots off the lead until last month at Muirfield. Woods was two shots behind, in the penultimate group, playing a fast, firm links course that was built for his game. And then he three-putted for bogey twice in the opening four holes and was never a legitimate threat.

“Obviously, Tiger has had a very, very good year,” said Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 majors remain the standard that Woods pursues. “He’s not finished off a couple majors he’s had an opportunity to be involved in. Would be pretty hard-pressed not to make him — if not the favorite, one of the favorites — going into Oak Hill. He’ll play Oak Hill well, and he’ll control his golf ball well and manage his game well, just as he does every week.

“Will he win more majors? I think so. When? I don’t know.”

More than ever, the majors are up for grabs — 18 players have won the last 20 majors, with multiple wins during that span for only McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, who produced one of golf’s greatest closing rounds at the British Open.

Adam Scott and Justin Rose, longtime friends born two weeks apart, captured the Masters and the U.S. Open. During an exchange of text messages after Scott won at Augusta National, he told Rose that this was “our time.” It mainly referred to how they had paid their dues and were ready to take the next step. It helps that Woods hasn’t won a major in more than five years, and McIlroy is struggling.

Woods and McIlroy aren’t the only players desperate to win a major.

Lee Westwood is coming off another close call in a major, failing to hold a two-shot lead at Muirfield and feeling helpless when Mickelson shot 66 to blow by everybody. Luke Donald had his closest call yet in a major — he played with the winner, Rose, at the U.S. Open.

Brandt Snedeker is regaining his strong form from earlier in the year. He joins a trio of Americans — Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar — who have won enough big tournaments that a major could be next. Mahan might be a sentimental favorite at Oak Hill. He will be playing for the first time since leaving the Canadian Open with a two-shot lead going into the weekend so he could be with his wife for the birth of their first child, a daughter they named Zoe.

Most peculiar about this season is that 11 players from the top 20 in the world have yet to win a tournament this year. That includes recent major winners Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Charl Schwartzel and Keegan Bradley. Most prominent on that list is McIlroy.

McIlroy has reason to find hope when he looks back to where he was at this time a year ago. He had gone five months without a win, which included a stretch of missed cuts that had critics questioning everything from his game to his romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. McIlroy had a 67-68 weekend at Firestone to tie for fifth, gleaning just enough confidence to win by eight shots in the PGA Championship.

“I was sitting up here this time last year probably not feeling as if my game was in great shape, and I’m sitting up here this year a lot more positive,” McIlroy said from the Bridgestone Invitational. “So that’s a great sign. If something similar could happen like it did last year — get a good finish here or get into contention — that would set me up for the last major of the season, and going on from there, set me up for the great end of the year.”

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