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By DOUG FERGUSON
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. – Rich Beem stood over his tee shot on the 18th hole during his final practice session for the PGA Championship, trained his eye down the narrow fairway squeezed between bunkers, waggled his driver and then backed off.
“This is the hardest hole I’ve ever played,” he said Wednesday.
Then he smoked his tee shot with the slightest draw and saw it hop to the left on a canted fairway and disappear into the bunker.
“And it just got harder,” he said before walking off.
That was just the 498-yard closing hole at Oakland Hills.
Beem and the rest of the field at the final major of the year haven’t found other parts of the course to be much easier.
Indeed, “The Monster” is more than a nickname at this PGA Championship, which starts Thursday.
“This is as tough of a setup as I’ve ever seen,” Steve Stricker said.
The PGA Championship has been getting positive reviews over the last several years as the most fair of all the majors, particularly among the three in the United States. Phil Mickelson last week described the PGA as the major without an ego.
Now, the toughest test in golf could be the last one.
“The usual setup for the PGA is more like a tough U.S. tour event,” British Open champion Padraig Harrington said. “It’s nearly more U.S. Open-type that the U.S. Open is at the moment, if that makes any sense. It’s actually like they switched the two of them around this year.”
What makes it so difficult?
It starts with sheer length. The course has been stretched 318 yards since the 2004 Ryder Cup, measuring 7,395 yards, the longest in major championship history for a par 70. Two of the par 3s are over 235 yards, so long they have fairways.
“This little pitch-and-putt?” Chad Campbell said, rolling his eyes. “It’s brutal. The added length is very difficult.”
But length is nothing new at majors, for just about every course is longer than it was. The trouble at Oakland Hills is the shape of the greens, which only look large. The Donald Ross design — since worked on by Robert Trent Jones for the 1951 U.S. Open and most recently by Rees Jones — have more contours than just about any course, including Augusta National. George McNeill hit putts on the 18th green that tracked in the shape of a parabola.
And on the way to the green is uniform rough that doesn’t look that terrifying until a ball lands it in and sinks to the bottom. The great mystery this week are the rakes — players have spotted course workers raking the grass toward the tee, making it stand up like a fresh crew cut on a Marine recruit.
“It doesn’t seem long because you’ve just come from Birkdale,” Geoff Ogilvy said, referring to the site of the British Open. “But it’s 4 inches, and thick enough. If you’re more than 100 yards, you’re not going to get to the green from too many lies.”
Rocco Mediate was playing the 18th early Wednesday — his only nine holes of practice — when one of his tee shots strayed to the right. His caddie went looking for it, and when he finally found it, picked it up and said, “No good over here. Make a note of that.”
Predicting a score is pointless because no one knows how the PGA of America will set it up when scores start counting Thursday. But wherever they put the tees and pins, Oakland Hills has gotten the players’ attention.
“The whole golf course really feels and plays like a major should,” Ernie Els said before going out for one last look. “So I think we’re in for a tough week. But a very fair week.”
Els is among those trying to make sure his season does not end without a major. He finally won again in the United States at the Honda Classic, but hasn’t done much since and is hopeful his recent work with Butch Harmon starts to take hold.
Harmon is a popular man these days. He also is working with Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the world and the betting favorite. And he spent Wednesday morning with Adam Scott, who has slipped to No. 8 in the world and is starting to feel the heat for never having seriously challenged in a major.
“I can see some good scores,” Scott said. “But I can see it going the other way, too.”
The last time over par won a PGA Championship was in 1976 (Dave Stockton at Congressional), giving it the longest streak of winner at par or better of any major. Over par has won at all the other majors within the last two years.
Might the PGA Championship join them?
“This has the potential to play as the hardest major,” Mike Weir said. “And that’s never the case. Usually of the four majors, if you played your best, you could score here. Now you could play great and 70 might be awesome.”
Scott is among four players in the top 10 in the world without a major — the others are Sergio Garcia (No. 6), Stewart Cink (No. 9) and Stricker (No. 10). The PGA Championship is known as “Glory’s Last Shot,” and what gives this major even more of a sense of urgency is that players have to wait seven months until the next one.
Tiger Woods likely will be in the field for the Masters, so this also might be the last time not having to worry about him. Woods is the two-time defending champion of the PGA Championship, winning last year by three shots over Woody Austin at Southern Hills.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys,” Els said. “You look at guys who have not won majors, who at my age (38) or even past my age who are playing well this year. They can break through. There’s a lot of guys playing very good golf.”
From what they’ve seen this week, they better be playing great.