SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Along the humps and hollows of Whistling Straits, against the magnificent backdrop of Lake Michigan, the stage is set for golf’s final major championship of the year, the PGA.
This year, that could stand for Players Gone Amok.
Tiger Woods is getting grilled like never before, but not about his marriage, his personal life or that fire hydrant his car ran over last Thanksgiving. It’s about his golf, of all things, and it’s not pretty.
Phil Mickelson revealed he’s recovering from a painful bout of arthritis and has become a vegetarian. Lefty is now eating greens in regulation, along with hitting them.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin and Golf Channel reporter Jim Gray nearly hit each other.
Woods, the No. 1 player for a record 270 weeks in a row, hasn’t come close to winning a tournament this year and reached a new low last week at Firestone when he posted the worst score of his career (18-over 298) and finished 30 shots behind the winner.
For a guy who has won 14 majors – that’s one more than his next four rivals combined – the drama at the PGA Championship is not whether Woods can win, but whether he can make the cut. And if he doesn’t, whether he will be picked for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“Life in general the last nine months has been very difficult,” Woods said. “But just like my dad always said, ‘Just keep living.’ That’s something I’ve taken to heart quite a bit. And there were quite a few times that I’ve definitely said that to myself.”
Then came the shockers from Mickelson.
Before taking questions Tuesday, he revealed that he has been battling a form of arthritis since the week before the U.S. Open in June and made a special trip to the Mayo Clinic but now is taking medication and headed for a recovery.
The other surprise is his diet.
Mickelson, an investor in the popular restaurant chain “Five Guys, Burgers and Fries,” has become a vegetarian. Make that “Five Guys, Bulgar and Fennel.”
“Can you believe that?” he said. “It’s not really me, but it has been.”
Then there’s Sergio Garcia, the talented young Spaniard who was 19 when he nearly beat Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship.
He had his heart broken by Greg Norman’s daughter last year and has been in a funk ever since. It reached a point last week that he said he was taking a two-month break after the final major, even though that means skipping a chance to play in the Ryder Cup.
With all this commotion going on, clouds gathered over the PGA Championship on Wednesday, the final day of practice, and pounded Whistling Straits with rain so hard that Anthony Kim went barefoot on some holes.
And then another black cloud arrived – or maybe it was Gray.
The Golf Channel’s Jim Gray reported Tuesday evening that Pavin told him he was picking Woods for the Ryder Cup if he didn’t make the team on his own. Pavin saw this Wednesday morning while playing a practice round before the rain arrived, and he put on Twitter that he never said that.
Minutes after Pavin’s news conference, Gray walked into the interview room for a heated exchange with Pavin, and pointed a finger at his chest. According to Pavin – his wife taped the argument on her cell phone – Gray called him a liar and said, “You’re going down.”
In the entry way to the media center, reporters were buzzing over the spat. Pavin was in the back of the room with Colin Montgomerie to sign the Ryder Cup captain’s agreement.
In walked Woods’ chief spokesman, Glenn Greenspan, and hardly anyone noticed.
And it was Woods himself who had sparked the Ryder Cup debate.
Even in such strange times, Woods drives just about every topic of discussion. And to think that just one year ago, at the PGA Championship in Hazeltine, the biggest shock was that Woods finished in second place.
The focus should shift to golf when the tournament gets under way Thursday. What’s missing is a clear favorite, and that can be attributed to Woods, too.
Graeme McDowell won his first major in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, even though the Sunday contenders included Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els. Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open at St. Andrews with a performance reminiscent of Woods, even though not many knew the 27-year-old South African, and even fewer could pronounce his name.
In some respects, Mickelson was a surprise at the Masters. He had not won a tournament all year, and has not won since. But his wife, Amy, made her first trip to a tournament since being diagnosed with breast cancer a year earlier, and their embrace behind the 18th green at Augusta National remains among the most poignant moments of the year.
What will Whistling Straits deliver? Just about anything.
“The major championship have got a lot more wide open, it seems, in the past couple of years,” said 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, who has as good of a chance as anyone this week.
He mentioned the problems Woods is having on the golf course – Woods has broken par in only four of his last 20 rounds – along with the 78 that Mickelson shot on Sunday when he had a chance to go to No. 1 in the world. The No. 3 player is Lee Westwood, who pulled out of the PGA with a calf injury.
“So there’s going to be a lot of guys here thinking that it’s the right time for them to break though,” McIlroy said. “And I’m definitely one of those guys. You can never write off the likes of Tiger and Phil.”
So who’s the winner?
“Anyone in the field,” Carl Pettersson said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
In many ways.