TULSA, Okla. — Tiger Woods usually goes on vacation after winning at Firestone, but that changed this year when it was moved to the week before the PGA Championship. He was at Southern Hills on Monday morning getting ready for the final major of 2007.
Considering how this year on the PGA Tour has gone, that might have felt like a vacation.
Golf has been one big grind this year, a seemingly endless supply of courses with deep rough, tricky pins and high scores. Woods was the only player under par last week at the Bridgestone Invitational, which had the fewest number of players in red numbers at a regular PGA Tour event since the 1995 Tour Championship.
Southern Hills figures to be a solid test, typical of any major.
But as Steve Stricker noted last week, “It seems like every week we’re getting one of these.”
“The golf courses are so much harder,” Woods said. “Stevie (Williams) and I were talking about this. Have we played a tournament yet where you had to go low? With our schedule of tournaments I’ve played in, that hasn’t been the case at all.”
And he’s not alone.
One indicator that has surprised everyone from players to rules officials is birdies per round. The PGA Tour leader in that category has averaged at least 4.4 birdies per round every year since 1999. Going into the PGA Championship, the leader is Jonathan Byrd at 3.85.
If the trend continues — and it doesn’t figure to get easier the next month — it would be the first time since 1990 that no one on the PGA Tour averaged more than four birdies per round.
Woods, who has never finished lower than fifth in that category, is currently at No. 39.
“It just gets to the point where every course is a long, long golf course with deep, deep rough,” Davis Love III said. “It gets a little stressful. You can’t get away with very much, and you have to be right on perfect. You miss a fairway, you’re hard-pressed to get it back on the green. They keep lengthening courses that are already long. It’s just tough.”
Adam Scott was asked how many majors it feels as though he has played this year. He used his fingers to start ticking them off, and he wound up using both hands.
“Probably seven,” he said, and this was before he went out for his first practice round at Southern Hills.
He mentioned the three majors that already have taken place. There was the Wachovia Championship and The Players Championship in consecutive weeks. The International, which produced birdies and eagles galore, was replaced by the AT&T National at Congressional.
And don’t forget Firestone, which several players figured was suitable for a U.S. Open without any gimmicks from the USGA.
“You’ve got to play for par these days,” Scott said. “You used to have that one or two times a year, and that was a challenge. But every week it starts to get boring. It lacks imagination.”
Four tournaments were won last year with a score in single digits under par, including the majors. There already have been seven such winning scores this year. Woods won Doral at 10-under 278; the year before, his winning score was 20-under 268.
PGA Tour rules official Slugger White says nothing was changed, and he was surprised to hear the average birdies for round was significantly down from last year.
“We don’t think about birdies and bogeys,” White said. “We’re trying to give them the fairest and the best test. Our general philosophy is difficult and fair every day. There’s not one ounce of difference in our philosophy this year at all.”
So why such a tough year?
Some can be attributed to the change in the schedule, such as Congressional replacing Castle Pines. Some of it is the weather, and look no further than Augusta National, where the frosty air and dry conditions led to Zach Johnson winning at 1-over 289, the first time since 1956 that no one broke par at the Masters.
Two courses on the Florida swing were par 70s — the Honda Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational — taking away two birdie chances.
Even so, some arrived at Southern Hills either feeling worn out or incapable of being surprised by however difficult the PGA Championship plays this week.
“It’s gotten that way a little more as time goes on,” Mark Calcavecchia said. “It seems like years ago, it was just kind of easy. The rough was never this deep week in and week out. I think the pin placements have gotten tougher over the years. Obviously, we’re playing courses longer than we ever have. They’re trying to combat technology a little bit with course conditions and course setups.
“But that’s kind of a good thing,” he added, “to know you don’t have to go out and shoot really low.”
Woods also is a fan of the tougher conditions. He often says he doesn’t like tournaments won at 25 under par, where making a par means losing strokes to the field.
But is such a steady diet of pars good for the entertainment value of professional golf?
“I think it’s great,” Woods said. “You’ve got to be smart. The golf ball doesn’t go as crooked as it used to, so you’ve got to do something overall — making pins closer to the edges, the rough is certainly higher. You’ve got to do it, or guys will go low. If you give them a golf course that’s pretty easy, they’re going to tear it apart.”
There’s no telling what to expect at Southern Hills. Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open in 2001 in a playoff after finishing at 4-under 276. Nick Price won the PGA Championship in 1994 on the same course at 11-under 269, but that was in August, when the heat was stifling and the greens required more water to keep them alive.
There is one tradition at Southern Hills. In six previous majors, four of the champions are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.