Hawk's Nest: Recalling a crazy 2003 major season


You want weird? Let’s go back 10 years to golf’s oddest row of ducks: the 2003 major championships. Collectively, we’re talking about John, Paul, George and Wacko – a season when rhyme and reason were replaced by Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel.

With the PGA Championship returning to Oak Hill CC next week, it’s worth revisiting the succession of strangeness a decade ago. The 2003 Masters was one of the most highly anticipated tournaments I’ve ever covered, the debut of extensive course modifications by former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson. Everyone expected the so-called “Tigerproofing” to kill any remaining chances for the game’s shorter hitters.

It rained all week. Golf’s grandest competitive stage was playing at about 7,800 yards. And Mike Weir, who would rank 68th on the PGA Tour in driving distance that year, won in a playoff over Len Mattiace, who ranked 153rd. Hootie must have thought he didn’t move the tees back far enough. Two additional alterations would soon follow.

Conventional wisdom missed the cut at Augusta National, but things couldn’t have gone more to form at the ’03 U.S. Open. The day before play began, veteran caddie Joe LaCava told me no course setup catered to a player more than Olympia Fields did to Jim Furyk, and Furyk won rather easily on a dull, somewhat unmemorable week. Logic reigns. At least for about a month.

The summer of ’03 featured perhaps the biggest back-to-back major stunners in golf history. Ben Curtis didn’t just win the British Open. He beat Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III and Thomas Bjorn, who basically gave away the tournament. One could argue, however, that Micheel’s victory at the PGA was even more astonishing.

Curtis triumphed on a bouncy, pot-luck Royal St. George’s – controlling the ball on some holes was virtually impossible. Anybody could win that week, and anybody did. Micheel outlasted Chad Campbell on a much fairer test. The rough at Oak Hill was far more menacing than at most PGA’s, and if you didn’t drive it in the fairway, you had little chance of hitting the elevated greens or making par.

It was the kind of meat-and-potatoes test you’d expect Woods to thrive upon. He wound up T-39, his worst finish at a major in 28 starts as a pro. Tiger did win five other tournaments in 2003, but it was the first year he’d failed to claim a big trophy since 1998. Back then, those stretches were referred to as “slumps,” and Eldrick Almighty didn’t approve of that word.

It just so happens that ’03 remains the only full year Woods was without a swing coach. His relationship with Butch Harmon had ended the previous summer, and if Hank Haney served as a pair of eyes out at Isleworth, he didn’t officially join Camp Tiger until the spring of ’04. Seeing how reliant Woods has been in regard to on-site counsel, perhaps it’s no coincidence 2003 failed to meet his imperial standards.

Phil Mickelson had the worst season of his career in ‘03. It’s the last year in which he failed to win an event of any kind – the only other time it happened was in 1999. Lefty’s streak of 10 consecutive years with at least one victory is by far the longest on Tour. In 2003, however, he was a distracted player whose wife, Amy, endured serious medical issues during the birth of their third child that March.

Both mom and baby made it through labor, but with three kids under the age of 4, Mickelson didn’t always look like a guy who wanted to be at a golf tournament. His year ended in dismal fashion with an 0-5 record in the Presidents Cup, which led to a rededication to golf heading into ’04 and his first major title four months later.

So here we are, midway into the back nine of 2013. Woods has returned to the top in the Official World Golf Ranking. Mickelson has regained the No. 2 position by virtue of his British Open triumph, and the three guys who rented the No. 1 spot while Woods rebuilt his life all find their careers in a mild crisis.

Luke Donald can’t win a tournament. Lee Westwood can’t win a major. Rory McIlroy is a mess. Pro golf is a star-driven enterprise, dependent on its superstars to move the mainstream needle. Thanks to the two best players of the last 30 years, the needle is alive and moving in 2013.

WHAT TO EXPECT at Oak Hill? Beats me. Campbell, who finished two shots behind Micheel in ’03, is a low-ball, right-to-left player whose flight wouldn’t seem suitable on a course with dramatic terrain. The greens are deceivingly difficult, yet Micheel’s putting numbers were awful across the board the year he picked up his lone Tour victory.

I’ve been saying it on my live chats all year: this is the major Woods would seem to have the best chance of winning. Heavy rain July 3 caused significant flooding of the grounds, forcing a shutdown of both courses and knocking down a large tree that guarded the right side of the eighth green.

A majority of Oak Hill’s bunkers were also damaged by the storm, but that stuff can be fixed, and there shouldn’t be any effects of Mother Nature’s wrath when the big boys arrive. Rain leads to thicker rough, however, and it will be interesting to see how PGA setup man Kerry Haigh has the mowers set for next week.

I don’t keep specific notes on such things, but Sahalee (1998) and the ’03 gathering were the toughest PGAs to play if you missed a fairway, but again, I’m not sure how that factors in to who will play well and who won’t.

My short list of favorites:

Matt Kuchar (15-1). A tie for second in Canada is probably the perfect result nearing a major. Mickelson won the week before claiming the British, but it rarely happens. Why mess with the golf gods if you don’t really have to?

Jason Day (18-1). You can look at the fact that he has one victory in 130 career starts – or the fact that he continues to make noise at the majors. A closing 77 felled him at Muirfield, but Day drives it a mile and ranks 21st on Tour in putting. Nice combo.

Tiger Woods (20-1). He’s 14 over par on the weekend at the last two majors and looks out of sorts the minute things go wrong, regardless of where he stands. Why is he on my list? Plenty of red shirts left in the closet.

Dustin Johnson (20-1). Strong enough to hit greens from any rough. Long enough to hit gap wedges in from the fairway. He plays well this time of year, and like Kuchar, the T-2 in Canada doesn’t hurt.

Adam Scott (22-1). His only top-10s in 2013 have come at the WGC in Miami, the Masters and British. Has developed a big-game mentality and drives it well enough to use the big stick whenever he wants. That shipment of confidence has finally arrived.