Friday, 19 March 2010

A little over a year ago, Thomas Björn produced a superb performance which, very nearly, brought him victory in the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. In the end, the Dane had to settle for a share of second place with Steve Elkington, one shot behind eventual Champion Phil Mickelson, but he will return to try again this year at Medinah Country Club, part of the strongest European Tour entry ever to contend in a Major Championship in America.

In total, 47 European Tour Members will undertake the trip to Illinois including eight who will be making their debuts in the event – the English quartet of John Bickerton, Kenneth Ferrie, Simon Khan and Anthony Wall; Sweden’s Johan Edfors; Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño; Argentina’s Andres Romero and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa.

Although the experience of a US PGA Championship will be new to them all, it should hold no fears for two of the English contingent at least, for Kenneth Ferrie and Anthony Wall have already shown this season that they are more than capable of holding their own in the pressure cooker arena of a Major Championship.

In June, Ferrie produced a superb debut in the US Open Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York State, three gritty opening rounds seeing him go into the final day tied for the lead with Phil Mickelson before he eventually finished in a share of sixth place, only three shots adrift of Champion Geoff Ogilvy.

“Going out there, nobody really gave me a chance of doing anything and I didn’t really know what to expect of myself,” he said. “So to finish tied sixth in only my fourth Major and only my third tournament in America, the only way I saw it was a very good achievement and a very positive achievement.

“To play the US Open on perhaps the hardest course ever does you no end of good and the next time I am in such a position, I will be able to draw on that situation. If you are capable of contending and leading the US Open then you are capable of contending in any tournament in the world therefore I am looking forward to the US PGA immensely.”

Then in July, Wall produced a fine closing round of 69 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club to finish in a share of 11th place in The Open Championship, the best finish in the event by a golfer from the British Isles.

Also, Edfors will be relishing the chance to test himself at the highest level having shown his game is in fine fettle on The European Tour with victories already this season in the TCL Classic in China, The Quinn Direct British Masters in England, and The Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.

Another European Tour Member eager to get into the thick of the action in Illinois will be Spaniard Sergio Garcia. At Hoylake, the 26 year old went into the last day in the final group with eventual Champion Tiger Woods but could not reproduce the fireworks he had shown over the opening three days and eventually settled for a share of fifth place.

As well as being keen to put that experience behind him, Garcia will relish a return to Medinah especially for it was on the Illinois course in the 1999 US PGA Championship that the then teenage Spaniard thrust himself onto the global stage with a stirring performance, pushing Woods all the way before eventually surrendering to the American by a solitary shot.

Mention of Woods, too, is appropriate because the World Number One will, undoubtedly, enter the final Major Championship of the 2006 season as favourite after his superbly controlled but highly charged triumph at Hoylake last month.

It was Woods’ 11th Major Championship victory, bringing him level with Walter Hagen, and only now seven behind Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18. However it was also the American’s first victory since his father Earl died in May and the emotion of such an occasion was there for all to see as he wept openly in the arms of caddie Steve Williams on the 18th green, seconds after holing the winning putt.

Having got that out of his system, Woods will again be the man everyone has to beat, but all competitors will also have to overcome the longest layout in Major Championship history, the Number Three course at Medinah Country Club measuring 7,561 yards to a par of 72.

As well as the 1999 US PGA Championship, the course has also hosted the US Open Championship on three occasions, Cary Middlecoff winning in 1949, Lou Graham triumphing in 1975 and Hale Irwin coming out on top in 1990.

Who will join them on the Roll of Honour on Sunday night is an intriguing question but, added to the continuing quest for European Ryder Cup points and the culmination of the the United States’ Team qualification process, it promises to be an intriguing week’s viewing in the final Major Championship of the 2006 season.

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