Golf: Europeans love Oakland Hills

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Associated Press
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. ó To walk up the stairs to the locker room at Oakland Hills is a swift journey through history, the kind that most Americans would like to forget.
Go up the first flight and there on the wall is a wood-framed photograph of Colin Montgomerie, posing after another flawless swing. More large photos are at every turn, from Sergio Garcia staring down another flag to Luke Donald thrusting both arms in the air to Bernhard Langer posing with a gold cup. The final photo shows a champagne-soaked celebration at Oakland Hills.
The last major competition here was the 2004 Ryder Cup, and it wasn’t much competition at all.
Europe 18 1/2, United States 9 1/2.
“I got here this morning to play and there wasn’t a soul out here,” David Toms said Monday. “It was a lot different from the last time I walked off this golf course.”
For eight Europeans from that winning team, there are nothing but happy memories. And that might be one reason odds are better than ever of a European winning the PGA Championship for the first time in 80 years, its longest drought in any major.
“It was one of the most memorable weeks I’ve ever had, certainly on that golf course,” said Ian Poulter, who won his singles match against Chris Riley in 2004. “And it will be nice to go back to a golf course that I know, that I’ve played well on, and refresh and rekindle your mind with those good thoughts. That certainly is a golf course I’ve got a lot of good memories around.”
Poulter also can take good memories from the last major, where he challenged Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale with a birdie on the 16th and a 15-foot par on the final hole that turned out to be good enough for the silver medal.
And he’s not alone.
Europe has 16 players who are among the top 50 in the world ranking, although Donald is not at Oakland Hills because of a wrist injury that has kept him out of the final two majors and could keep him off the Ryder Cup team.
Three other players from Europe’s record-setting victory in 2004 did not qualify for the PGA Championship ó Paul McGinley, Thomas Levet and David Howell, whose 6-iron to 8 feet on the 17th hole was among the signature shots that week.
Even so, their collective spirits have never been this high.
Harrington has led the way, ending Europe’s eight-year drought in the majors by winning at Carnoustie, then becoming the first European in 92 years to win the British Open in consecutive years.
Lee Westwood came within a 15-footer of forcing a playoff at the U.S. Open and last week at a World Golf Championship event. Garcia, who some consider to be the best player without a major, won the next best thing to a major when he captured The Players Championship in May.
Robert Karlsson of Sweden is the only player who has finished in the top 10 at all three majors this year.
Maybe it would be best for Americans to use alternate stairs to reach the locker room, for Oakland Hills has far more history than an exhibition between continents. This is where Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open in 1951 and gave the course its nickname, finishing at 7-over 287 and saying he was glad he brought “this monster” to its knees.
The last of eight majors held at Oakland Hills was the 1996 U.S. Open, where Steve Jones won by one shot over Davis Love III and Tom Lehman, and Tiger Woods played his final U.S. Open as an amateur.
Woods is missing his second straight major after season-ending surgery to rebuild his left knee, although PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the world’s No. 1 player is starting his rehab.
Despite that 1-2-3 finish by Americans in the ’96 U.S. Open, the most recent memories of Oakland Hills aren’t all that great.
Phil Mickelson played two matches with Woods, hitting a 3-wood into an unplayable lie on the final of a foursomes match, getting benched by U.S. captain Hal Sutton and hitting into the water on the 16th to lose his singles match to Sergio Garcia.
Chris DiMarco was the only American with a winning record that week, but that seems so long ago. DiMarco tied for 12th last week at Firestone, his best finish in a year, moving him up to No. 184 in the world.