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Hearts of Oak at Oak Hill
The old Donald Ross course at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, is a monster at the best of times when members and their guests enjoy the broad, manicured oak tree lined fairways. After the phonetically appropriately named Kenny Heigh, the senior director of tournaments for the US PGA, and his staff got their hands on it 'monster' became a euphemism.

Clearly, they were determined that par would be a winning score and they very nearly succeeded.

With fairways 15-yards wide and rough like wire wool with 5,000 volts of static electricity through it, hitting the short grass was always going to be the determining factor in the tournament. But even after cutting the rough down to its statutory US country club four-inch length, it still had the aspect of Don King on a bad hair day. Put simply, the rough at Oak Hill was over the top.

With the course stretched to its limits, greens hard and fast and with bunker sand like talcum powder, the course was hard enough. But even after hitting the fairway, the rough about the greens so limited attacking play the whole event from a spectator's point of view was about as enthralling as watching paint dry. From the players standpoint it must have been a very miserable experience indeed.

Optimism is a feeling more exercised in golf than in any other sport. Walking from the tee to find a driven ball that has just missed a fairway is an event accompanied by the optimism that it will be found in a good lie. Similarly, after missing a green, there is always the feeling that a good recovery might yet save the day.

The set up of Oak Hill erased any possible feelings of optimism. If the fairway was missed - even by inches - a shot dropped was almost inevitably the price paid. If a green were missed, the cost could be doubled. This is surely not golf as it were ever intended. The US PGA has evolved a game with which the rest of the world is unfamiliar.

It is certainly significant that Alex Cejka and Luke Donald, both US-based, were the only two Europeans to figure in the event. It is equally significant that vast numbers of the world's top ranking players were not required to turn up for the concluding two rounds while the hoary Jay Haas and Fred Funk, both seasoned performers at hitting US fairways, were there at the close.

But what is probably most telling is the fact Mickelson, a man not readily given to prudence in his play, went rapidly in reverse when his luck ran out after leading the event, and that Tiger Woods could only manage a four round total of 292. That the tournament's four-rounds stoke average was 74 against a par of 70 says it all. I find it hard to believe that players want to play this sort of hit-and-hack golf and am absolutely certain that spectators do not want to watch it.

One would like to think that Tiger Woods has lifted the game to a new level and, with the realisation that he is merely mortal after all, his successors are matching him. One would like to accept the Nicklaus theory that Woods has, relatively speaking, enjoyed a time when the competition was not what it was in Nicklaus' day. It took Big Jack until his 30th birthday to take his Major's total to eight, while the Tiger has done that before his 27th. Tiger will win more Majors, few would doubt that, but he is going to find it more difficult if the games determining bodies are going to reduce the chances of recovery from an errant shot while at the same time reducing the premium on having a wide variety of shots to draw upon. Is the game conspiring to hamper him?

We are witnessing the outcome of a war between the games governing bodies and the club and ball manufacturers. With ever-increasing length off the tee and ever-greater ball control off the clubface, officials have responded by placing the premium on accuracy. Ballesteros should count his blessings that he came when he did. The margin of tolerated error has become so small that the modern American game has more in common with darts than with that which has gone before.

Tiger Woods has not won a major championship this year  for the first time in four successive seasons. No one should be surprised at that for even the noteworthy Nicklaus had a 36-month drought in his prime. But this year's Major championships have produced four names unknown to the general golfing public and one should be surprised at that.

Mike Weir, this years Masters victor, may be considered an exception, but Rich Beem and Ben Curtis were hardly locker room names when they collected the US PGA and Open titles on both sides of the Atlantic respectively. Now we have Shaun Micheel's name on the Wannamaker Trophy as the USPGA Champion. Who would ever have believed it? It is manna from heaven for the bookmakers of the world.

Shaun Micheel played a most memorable shot to the last green to take the title. It required remarkable sphincter control as well as a heart of Oak at the conclusion of four rounds of hack-it-and hope golf. The lad had a fairytale week at Oak Hill. It will be interesting to see how long the fairytale lasts.

©    18 - AUGUST 2003

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