Can major trend with major unknowns last?

PGA at Whistling Straits is chance to create magic

Golf

August 11, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Shaun Micheel stood on the practice green at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., nearly unnoticed as he prepared for the 85th PGA Championship. It was only his third major championship, one that would become a life-altering experience for the 34-year-old tour pro from Memphis.

By Sunday night, Micheel was lifting the Wanamaker Trophy in victory, and with it, the expectations that can often prove burdensome to players. Going into this year's PGA Championship, which begins tomorrow at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis., Micheel is still searching to regain that magic.

"Maybe," he said recently, "it's just some of the pressure I've been putting on myself to duplicate what I did last year."

Micheel has learned what Ben Curtis did after coming out of nowhere to win last year's British Open, what Hilary Lunke found out after winning last year's U.S. Women's Open, what Todd Hamilton and Pete Oakley might discover after winning this year's British Open and Senior British Open, respectively.

It is difficult to back up winning a major championship after being a relative unknown for most of your professional life.

"It's not necessarily a feel that I need to do it, but I feel that I want to do it," Lunke said before this year's U.S. Women's Open. "That was basically the greatest week of my entire life, and it was the best feeling I've ever had. And, of course, I want to try to get back in a position to have that feeling again."

Lunke had never experienced that before as a pro and hasn't since. In fact, her playoff victory last year at Pumpkin Ridge was her only top 10 finish in 55 career starts. She is ranked 95th on this year's LPGA Tour money list, with a measly $54,282.

In Hamilton's case, it was something he had done 11 times in a career spent mostly in Asia, as well as once earlier this year on the PGA Tour, at the Honda Classic. The only difference was the competition and the course, Royal Troon in Scotland.

"I've always felt if you go through the trials and tribulations of a four-day tournament and win a golf tournament, that can only benefit you in the long run," said Hamilton, who wound up beating former British Open champion Ernie Els in a four-hole aggregate playoff at Royal Troon.

Oakley's victory is harder to explain, perhaps the biggest upset of any in this recent run of majors. Oakley had won a couple of club pro national tournaments as an assistant out of the Philadelphia area, but had spent most of the past few years as a managing partner of a new club in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

With the Senior British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, there was large contingent of players from the Champions Tour who didn't bother going over to qualify or play. Oakley, who had qualified for the European Senior Tour last November, thought his chances were good going into the Open.

"People get into [majors] that you never heard of, so there's more a likelihood of an unknown winning in a major where a lot of people have gained access rather than a regular tour event, which is basically a closed shop," said Oakley, 55.

It was only at the insistence of his older brother, David, a moderately successful player on the European Senior Tour that Oakley gave it a chance overseas. By the time he got to Portrush, Oakley had built up enough confidence to know he could compete.

Oakley's victory in the British Senior Open gave him several benefits: a five-year exemption at the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii, entrance into next year's British Open at St. Andrews and, most significantly, a one-year exemption on the Champions Tour.

Oakley knows that he might be considered a one-shot wonder until he wins again, or even comes close, but in his own mind he proved to himself that he belonged on the Champions Tour with his second-round 66 in St. Louis after shooting 76 in the opening round of the U.S. Senior Open.

"I wanted to validate my victory over there. I shot 76 the first day and I had some problems with my clubs not arriving on time," said Oakley. "I didn't get my clubs until 3 a.m. the day of the first round. Shooting 66 was like taking a big, beautiful breath of oxygen."

Hamilton is still waiting to exhale.

Though Hamilton had become exempt by winning earlier this year, his victory at Royal Troon has turned him into a star. At 38, Hamilton is a lot more grounded than Curtis was when he won the British Open last year as a 26-year-old rookie.

"Heck, I was just happy getting my PGA Tour card," said Hamilton. "For me, that was getting the monkey off my back. I tried eight times over 17 years, and I think just to get my card relieved a lot of pressure I put on myself."

Micheel is still feeling that pressure, and will certainly not be able to escape the spotlight at Whistling Straits. Since finishing ninth in The Players Championship in March, Micheel has barely been in contention. He finished tied for 28th in the U.S. Open after shooting 80 the last day.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Micheel, who underwent another life-changing event last year when his wife gave birth to their first child in November. "I mean, how many times do you get to defend in a major championship?"

For most, if not all, of golf's out-of-nowhere major champions, the answer is usually once.

PGA Championship

Site: Whistling Straits, Haven, Wis.

When: Tomorrow-Sunday

Length: 7,514 yards

Par: 36-36-72

Purse: $6 million (winner's share $1,080,000)

Defending champion: Shaun Micheel

TV: Tomorrow, 2 p.m., TNT; Friday, 2 p.m., TNT; Saturday, 11 a.m., TNT; 2 p.m., chs. 13, 9; Sunday, 11 a.m., TNT; 2 p.m., chs. 13, 9

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