Major pressure at season's final major


PITTSFORD, N.Y. – If every major has its own personality – from Augusta National’s first-day-of-school feel to the Open Championship’s wind-whipped simplicity – the PGA Championship has a distinct 2-minute drill persona.

Although officials have ditched “Glory’s Last Shot” for the more obtuse “The Season’s Last Major,” the PGA, by definition, is the metaphorical last call for those in search of Grand Slam glory. No one knows that better than Tiger Woods.

He lapped the field last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by a touchdown for his fifth victory this season and his 18th World Golf Championship. But 18 WGC trophies hasn’t been the mission since he set out on his historic quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

The symmetry of Woods’ major slump dovetails with the urgency normally associated with the season’s final title bout. If the world No. 1 comes up short at Oak Hill he will move to 0-for-18 since his last major victory.

PGA Championship: Articles, videos and photos

For Woods, 14 is starting to feel like the loneliest number.

“It's been probably the longest spell that I've had since I hadn't won a major championship,” Woods said. “I came out here very early and got my first one back in ’97. I've had, certainly, my share of chances to win. I've had my opportunities there on the back nine on probably half of those Sundays for the last five years where I've had a chance, and just haven't won it.”

As Woods has matured, he’s become adept at taking the long view. The underlying theme when he and swing coach Sean Foley began working together wasn’t to create a swing that could win four more majors, but one that would allow him to play in 40 more, and since he beat Rocco Mediate in ’08 at Torrey Pines he has finished in the top 10 (nine times) more often than not in his major starts.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Sunday’s finish at Oak Hill is very much a hard deadline that is followed by eight long months before the game motors down Magnolia Lane for the next Grand Slam gathering.

By comparison, sleeping on a 54-hole lead is a slumber party.

In fairness, Woods is hardly the only player in this week’s field on a major deadline.

Following one of his best major seasons, Lee Westwood spent the better part of Tuesday at Oak Hill working with Foley. It is a curious twist when the Englishman spends the hours before a major working on his ball-striking and not his short game, but such is the state of his game and his desire to shed the label of best player without a major.

“A win is the pinnacle of results,” Westwood said. “You can't really go into tournaments with that as a goal. You're going to end up disappointed a lot. So the idea is to play the best you can and give yourself a chance on Sunday going into the back nine and just see what happens.”

Rory McIlroy, the defending PGA champion, is also on the clock. The golf world has waited for the Ulsterman to wrest himself out of his competitive doldrums for the lion’s share of the season and for many reasons Oak Hill may be his last chance to salvage what has otherwise been a lost year.

While there is still meaningful golf to be played – the FedEx Cup playoffs begin in a fortnight and Europe’s playoff run gets underway later this year – Oak Hill is very much a last stand, with unique pressures that the rest of golf’s marquee are largely immune to.

World No. 2 Phil Mickelson, for example, is two weeks removed from arguably his greatest competitive moment at Muirfield, where he collected the third leg of the career Grand Slam. Ditto for world No. 4 Justin Rose (U.S. Open) and No. 5 Adam Scott (Masters), who both got on the Grand Slam board in 2013.

As Woods explained on Tuesday, “winning one major championship automatically means you had a great year. Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play in; you win one, you're part of history.”

Conversely, collecting five titles – particularly the quality wins Woods has piled up – is hardly a reason to hit the panic button, but when you’ve won 14 majors the bar tends to rest unreasonably high.

Oak Hill, of course, is the great unknown. In 2003, the last time the PGA was played on the upstate gem, Shaun Micheel stunned the golf world, clipping Chad Campbell with one of the greatest walk-off shots in golf (a 7-iron to inches at the 72nd hole).

On this history is not on Woods or Westwood’s side. At the ’03 PGA, Woods missed nearly as many fairways as he hit for the week (26 of 56), never broke 72 and tied for 39th, while Westwood managed just one birdie in 36 holes and missed the cut.

“It just puts a premium on hitting the ball in the fairway and hitting the ball on the greens, because there aren't a whole lot of opportunities out there to make birdie, but there's certainly a lot of opportunities to go the other way,” said Woods, who tied for 11th in fairways hit and second in greens in regulation last week at Firestone.

Nor do things seem to be trending statistically in Woods and McIlroy’s favor at the majors. Eighteen of the last 20 major champions were first-time Grand Slam winners, and as Micheel proved a decade ago Oak Hill is not adverse to surprise champions.

Among the growing list of players destined for that maiden major would be Brandt Snedeker, who tied for 11th at Muirfield and won the next week in Canada; Matt Kuchar, who has quietly become the United States’ most consistent player; and Henrik Stenson, who has climbed from 230th to 11th in the world thanks to consecutive runner-up finishes at the Open Championship and last week’s World Golf Championship.

Those would-be contenders, however, are not subjected to the urgency-of-now pressures that come with unrealistic expectations. The kind of expectations that Woods, Westwood and McIlroy now face as the clock winds down on the major championship season.

All three still have time to make their major mark in 2013, but as Yankees great Yogi Berra once opined, “It’s getting late early.”