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Horses and courses for 2012

Tiger Woods and Steve Williams
Getty Images

Now that the 2011 golf season is winding down, it might be worth looking ahead to 2012 and the five events that matter most in the golf world: the four major championships and the Ryder Cup.

Every year there’s speculation on which players the venues for the U.S. Open and British Open and PGA Championship might favor. Remember 2010? That was supposed to be a big year for Tiger Woods because the U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach — where he won by 15 in 2000 — and the British Open was at St. Andrews, where he had already won twice.

That didn’t work out so well for Woods but most people would agree it had nothing to do with the golf courses.

The one venue that never changes is Augusta National — except for the fact that it always changes. The men in the green jackets always change something about the golf course in large part because they can. They have the money to do just about anything they want so there is always something different: a new tee here; new trees there; maybe a couple of new hole locations.

Still, the basic character of the golf course hasn’t changed in the past few years. It did change when it was lengthened by almost 500 yards over a period of several years and rough — albeit less-than-penal rough — was put in to narrow the landing areas a bit.

The lengthening of the golf course was often referred to as “Tiger-proofing,” a reaction to Woods’ record-breaking performance in 1997 when he shot 270 for four days and lapped the field by 12 shots. There may have been something to that although the fact remains Woods broke the tournament record, previously held by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd, by one shot.

What’s more, the so-called “Tiger-proofing” only made the conditions more favorable for Woods and other bombers. Most — though not all — of the winners since the changes have been big hitters, the most notable exceptions being Mike Weir in 2003 and Zach Johnson (in exceptionally cold and difficult conditions) in 2007.

Two players will be the focus of about 90 percent of the media attention during tournament week prior to Thursday morning, and neither of them is defending champion Charl Schwartzel. One will be Woods, because he is always the dominant figure in any tournament he plays and the fact that the Masters was the only tournament he seriously contended in during 2011 will ratchet up interest in his quest for a 15th major title.

The other will be Rory McIlroy, who will be asked about his Sunday collapse this past April no fewer than 973,484 times before he can get to the first tee on Thursday. The only mitigating factor will be that he won’t have to answer the dreaded “Do you think this will have any long-term effect on your career?” question. He answered that one emphatically in June at Congressional. Still, he will get the “How will you feel if you’re leading here on Sunday?” question. My guess is his answer will be something like “I’d rather be leading than not leading.”

The next major stop will be The Olympic Club, which not only has been the site of four dramatic U.S. Open finishes but also has proved to have really bad karma for Hall of Famers. It can be argued that the most stunning upset in Open history was Jack Fleck’s playoff victory over Ben Hogan at Olympic in 1955. That said, the most shocking collapse in Open history may have been Arnold Palmer losing a seven-shot lead to Bill Casper on the back nine on Sunday in 1966 and then losing to him a day later in a playoff. (Yes, Casper is also a Hall of Famer but he’s not Palmer). In 1987, the duel over the final holes was between Tom Watson and Scott Simpson. Naturally, since it was Olympic, Simpson won. And then, 11 years later, Lee Janzen came from five shots behind on Sunday to catch and pass Payne Stewart to win his second U.S. Open title.

Interesting bit of trivia: Among the four Hall of Famers who came up just short at Olympic the only one who ever won another major was Stewart — the next year at Pinehurst.

Janzen’s winning score in 1998 was 280 — even par. What made Olympic so difficult that year was keeping the ball on the fairway on most holes because they slope so severely toward the rough. Once in the rough, players were often dead because those were in the days when the USGA made the rough so thick a player’s only option most of the time was to pitch out.

Mike Davis has changed the USGA’s setup theory radically since 2006. It will be fascinating to see what he does with Olympic. Oh, and if you’re wondering, there won’t be a repeat of the 1998 Friday hole-location debacle on No. 18: that green has been completely redone as part of the agreement between the USGA and the club to bring the Open back to San Francisco.

The last winner at Royal Lytham & St. Annes was David Duval when the Open Championship was played there in 2001. Duval pulled away on Sunday for a three-shot victory to finally win his first major. He hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since.

The golf course has a distinguished history: Bobby Jones was the winner the first time the Open was played there in 1926 and Seve Ballesteros won his first major there in 1979 — and won there again in 1988. Bob Charles was the first lefty to win a major when he won there in 1963.

Tom Lehman won his only major title there in 1996. Lehman’s scariest moment on Sunday may have come on the eighth hole when his caddie, Andy Martinez, set his bag down for a moment to run into a port-a-john. One of the English bobbies walking with the last group for security, decided he would help Martinez out and carry the bag to the green for him.

Lehman happened to turn his head just as the bobby picked the bag and screamed, “STOP, STOP!” No one other than a player or his caddie is allowed to move his equipment once the round has started. The startled bobby dropped the bag on the spot and said, “I was just trying to help Andy out a little.”

Lehman, one of golf’s nicest people, nodded and forced a smile. “I know, I know,” he said. “But that help could have gotten me disqualified.”

The bobby spent the rest of the day apologizing for his attempted good deed. It all turned out fine in the end.

One player worth watching at Lytham? McIlroy. In spite of his declaration after this year’s Open that he doesn’t like cold weather he does like Lytham. In fact, it is his favorite course in the Open rota.

No one knows who will like The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which is the site of the PGA Championship. It will have been almost 21 years since the so-called “War by The Shore” Ryder Cup matches in 1991 and the golf course has changed considerably since then. The biggest issues that spectators may face: The Ocean Course is very difficult to get to and from and to walk — not unlike Whistling Straits. Here’s hoping for a week at Kiawah that doesn’t involve camouflage or penalty strokes assessed the championship leader on the 72nd hole.

And the Ryder Cup? Medinah should be a great setting for it and the PGA of America has been working diligently for more than a year already to promote it in Chicago. There is just one potential problem: If by some chance the Cubs are in contention in the last week of September most people in town won’t even know the Ryder Cup is going on.

Then again, there’s probably a good chance that won’t be a problem. Although the Cubs did just hire Theo Epstein as their general manager …