Originally created 08/14/97

Championship a final exam for golf's best



MAMARONECK, N.Y. (AP) - When Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard step onto the first tee at Winged Foot on Thursday it will be more than the traditional first-round pairing of major championship winners at the PGA.

Those three are jockeying for supremacy in golf this year in what could be the beginning of a decade-long rivalry reminiscent of the Big Three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that started 35 years ago.

In a twist to a season that appeared early on to be the hands-down Year of the Tiger, the outcome of the 79th PGA Championship could turn 1997 into The Year of Ernie or The Year of Justin.

All three have won majors this year, all three are multiple tournament winners and all three have already banked more than $1 million in prize money. A victory in the PGA by one of them would be a big step toward determining Player of the Year.

And while 1997 might some day be compared to 1962, when Nicklaus won his first major and the rivalry with Palmer and Player got going, this year might also be remembered as the year Greg Norman and Nick Faldo weren't factors in any major.

If either Woods, Els or Leonard wins at Winged Foot, or if another young talent like Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson takes the title, it would be the first time since the Masters was created in 1934 that all four major championships were won by players in their 20s.

"It's going to be neat to see," Woods, the 21-year-old Masters champion said about playing with U.S. Open winner Els, 27, and British Open title-holder Leonard, 25. "We are going to be playing against each other for about 20 years and that's going to be really neat."

And then in recognition of the inevitable, felt all too painfully this year by Norman and Faldo, Woods said: "And then when we get to our 40s, we'll see some young kids kicking our butt."

If the plot of this PGA is the three under-30 major championship winners, the subplot is the failure this year of a couple of over-40 guys who have been prime contenders in majors for more than a decade.

In fact, it was at the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot that Norman had the first of his eight second-place finishes in major championships and the first loss that would make him the only player to lose all four majors in a playoff.

Norman tried to downplay the changing of the guard, saying he's glad they are taking the attention off him. Still, Norman bristles at the notion Woods will dominate golf in a way he never could.

"Remember, this guy's a human being," he said.

Norman won the first of his two major championships in 1986 at the British Open. The next year at the British, Faldo won the first of his six major titles.

Both have contended in the majors since, and it was a rare year that at least one of them didn't make a run at a major title.

But this year Faldo, 40, missed the cut at the Masters, was 48th at the U.S. Open and 51st at the British Open. Norman, 42, missed the cut in the Masters and the U.S. Open and was 36th at the British Open.

Still, Winged Foot is so difficult the patience and precision of veterans like Faldo, Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Tom Lehman and Scott Hoch could put them in the thick of things.

"I would take anything under par right now and fly back for the presentation," Montgomerie said.

Defending champion Mark Brooks - who could become the first person to miss the cut in all four majors the year after winning a major title - winced as he described the course.

"There's just probably six hard holes, six really hard holes and six impossible holes," he said. "You put that all together there's probably a couple of birdie holes on the golf course."

Tall trees, 5-inch rough and small, contoured green protected by massive bunkers make Winged Foot a shotmaker's course.

"It's a demanding driving course and then the greens are probably the smallest, especially the usable putting area," Faldo said. "They are the smallest targets of any major by a long way."

Winged Foot is a fitting final exam for both the young players who have excelled this year and the veterans who have struggled. It is a stern test that could tell a lot about the near future of golf.

"I would love to see that happen," Leonard said about the possible emergence of a great rivalry in which he vies with Woods, Els and other good, young players. "I hope it is the future of golf."

And while Woods, Els, Leonard, Furyk and Mickelson may be a glimpse of the future this week at the PGA, Norman and Faldo will be hoping to provide a peek at the past.

Hole-by-hole look at the West Course of Winged Foot Golf Club

Hole-by-hole look at the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club, site of the 79th PGA Championship on Thursday through Sunday.

No. 1, 446 yards, Par 4: One of the toughest starting holes in golf. Right-center of the fairway is ideal off the tee. Approach to large, undulating green must avoid deep bunkers left and right. If the flag is on the front third of the green, land short and run the ball on. Stay below the hole.

No. 2, 411 yards, Par 4: Dogleg right. Play drive left of center. Can make par from the left trees but not likely from the right trees. A very narrow green that rises from front to back is protected by very large deep bunkers on either side.

No. 3, 216 yards, Par 3: The 35-yard long green rises sharply from front to back and is protected by bunkers left and right, hard pan under the trees and out-of-bounds long. When Billy Casper won the 1959 Open he laid up short and made par all four days.

No. 4, 460 yards, Par 4: Drive must fly fairway bunkers on both sides and then it's still a long-iron approach through a narrow, uphill opening between two greenside bunkers. Missing the green long leaves a delicate chip back. Easiest green to putt on the front nine.

No. 5, 515 yards, Par 5: First real birdie chance. Can be reached in two but may be most easily birdied with a good pitch from the lay-up position. Very large green with a gentle back left to front right slope.

No. 6, 324 yards, Par 4: Best tee shot must be left of center. Very few pars are made if the green is missed with the second shot. A fairly flat dogleg green with a gentle slope toward the back. Possible to be on the green and not have a direct putt at the hole.

No. 7, 161 yards, Par 3: A large, fairly flat green makes for birdie opportunities. But there is no place to miss the green. Short shots will not run up to the elevated green. Bunkers left and right and the right bunker is one of Winged Foot's deepest, which is saying something.

No. 8, 442 yards, Par 4: Dogleg right requires tee shot to hug the tall trees on the right because a slightly left or even a straight drive will find rough and possibly trees, making for a near-impossible second shot. The green has a valley running from front to back on the left side.

No. 9, 467 yards, Par 4: Tree-lined fairway has heavy rough on both sides. Large bunker short and right of the green will catch many second shots. The green is 40 yards long with a hump in the middle and a pronounced mound on the back edge. Tough hole to lag the long putts.

No. 10, 190 yards, Par 3: Perhaps the toughest par-3 without water in the United States. The elevated sloping green is protected by large, deep bunkers and falls away on all sides. Front right bunker is an instant bogey. Out-of-bounds just over back of green.

No. 11, 396 yards, Par 4: Several large mounds forces tee shot to run left. Second shot most likely will be made from a side-hill lie. Another well-bunkered green with a narrow opening. Many players will use an iron off the tee because of trees left and right. Easiest green to putt on the back nine.

No. 12, 540 yards, Par 5: Perfect drive is just right of the large mound in the center of the fairway. Anything left will run more left and trees will block the second shot. Green is reachable in two but landing area in front of green is very narrow and well protected by bunkers and trees.

No. 13, 212 yards, Par 3: The most common mistake on this hole where the green rises about 3 feet on the front third, flattens out and then rises again is to leave the ball short. Anything that misses the green goes right, unless it lands in the left bunker. Saving par from around the green is a real accomplishment. Fairly easy green to putt.

No. 14, 430 yards, Par 4: Perfect drive carries the right-hand edge of the shamrock-shaped fairway bunker. Still leaves a difficult second shot to a small green. Almost anything above the hole must be lagged.

No. 15, 423 yards, Par 4: Ideal drive is left of center, but too far left could end in the water hazard. 3-wood might be the club since a perfect drive too far leaves a downhill lie. Second shot is all uphill to a long, narrow green well-guarded by very deep bunkers left and right. A back right pin placement is the toughest on the course.

No. 16, 457 yards, Par 4: Demands very accurate tee shot slightly right of center. Avoid at all costs the trees on the left. Needs perfect second shot to avoid large maple tree left of green and large bunker short and right. Green has a valley on the front half. Putts from back of green go down very quick slope.

No. 17, 449 yards, Par 4: Another difficult tee shot. Handful of bunkers right attracts a fade and trees left grab the hook. This followed by a long second shot to a rectangular green protected by deep bunkers. Kidney-shaped green features double breaks. On top of all this, hole usually plays into the wind.

No. 18, 448 yards, Par 4: An outstanding finishing hole. Dogleg left from a narrow, tree-lined chute. Shots hit to the front of the green will roll back down the hill into the fairway. Few people miss this green long. One of the fastest greens on the course. Bobby Jones sank a 12-foot double-break par putt here in 1929 U.S. Open to force a playoff, which he won.