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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Politics – external and internal – working for golf at a wide-open PGA Championship

Tiger Woods will continue his comeback this week at the site of his 2007 PGA Championship victory.

Despite what some senior professional golfers have been trying to tell us recently, you can’t keep politics out of sport.

No more than you can keep politics out of the health service, or the monarchy, or the environment, or any aspect of life.

And certainly not out of golf. This week’s PGA Championship is a case in point.

A political decision we can all get behind

It seems to have been roundly forgotten that this week’s venue, Southern Hills Country Club in Oklahoma, is actually a stand-in. This championship was supposed to have been staged at Trump National Golf Club, at Bedminster in New Jersey.

The reason it isn’t? Politics. The PGA of America belatedly joined golf’s headlong retreat from all things Donald J Trump after the events of January 6, 2021, in the aftermath of the 45th President’s attempts to circumvent his crushing defeat in the US Election of the previous November.

And here’s a rare example where politics has made everyone happy, barring Trump and his slavish adherents. Southern Hills is one of the Grand Dames of American championship golf, and is a far more distinguished and better course than the one it replaced.

In addition, it recently underwent an outstanding restoration – really a resto-mod – at the hands of Gil Hanse, the architect of Castle Stuart. Hanse has lengthened the course to modern standards of championship golf.

But he’s also brought back the close-cut run-offs from the greens, erasing the USGA-style close collars of thick rough. This should prove a proper test of the all-round game.

A really sad story

Unfortunately, the headline of the build-up is not that impending test, but that for the first time in living memory a fit and able champion will not defend his major title. Unthinkable as it appears, Phil Mickelson will be absent from Southern Hills.

I don’t buy the reasoning that Mickelson is afraid of media attention – he’s been an attention junkie, good and bad, all his days. Neither do I think that he’s afraid of being rusty – after all, he’s got to re-start somewhere, eventually.

Whenever he does return to play, it’s going to be a massive story. And after a couple of weeks of self-inflicted car crashes, what fledgling organisation sorely needs a mega-impact story at their upcoming debut event?

Big impact maybe, but it’s an awful story. Nobody is surely now pretending the LIV Golf opener in June is going to be a properly competitive, elite-standard event.

But clearly Mickelson has taken the money from them already, and he’s tied in. Even, it seems, to the extent of not defending his historic title. That’s incredibly sad.

The man’s back again

But let’s get away from the dark and back into the light. Even Norman drip-feeding the players they have secured who will defy a potential PGA Tour ban this week is not going to detract from a major championship once it gets going.

And, continuing his fascinating personal odyssey and the missionary work on behalf of established golf, Tiger Woods is going to play. He says he “feels stronger” than he did at Augusta, where he heroically hirpled through all four rounds.

Tiger won the last major at Southern Hills, also a PGA Championship, but an eon ago in 2007. It’s a full field, with the highest ranked of any of the majors (as usual). Slightly different than the mere 91 starters at Augusta, 15 of whom are not really competitive.

In those circumstances, no matter how better he’s feeling, making the cut is the most realistic target. But Tiger’s mere presence, allied to the promise that he can make this five-big-events-a-season schedule a real and competitive thing, is a massive boost for golf.

In addition, in Scottie Scheffler we have a real contender to be the first since Jordan Spieth in 2015 to be the winner of the year’s first two majors.

Scheffler’s short game is a massive strength, as we saw at Augusta. LIke most first-time Masters champions, he’s been an overly-busy bee with the personal appearances. But he reportedly shot in the low sixties on a recce visit to Southern Hills the other week.

The other contenders

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas also played the venue last week prior to the Byron Nelson in Dallas, in 35 mph winds to boot. Spieth missed the cut at the Masters, but that looks like a blip from as good a level of consistency as he’s had since 2017.

Thomas came back really strongly from a poor start at Augusta, and you get the impression this is a pivotal couple of years from him.

The spot reserved in the recent past for Brooks Koepka – the guy you just know will contend every major – looks now to be the property of Collin Morikawa.

The key is his game fits everywhere, like Koepka’s did, just in a very different way. In addition, Morikawa is easily the smartest cookie in the jar at the moment. He’s able to adjust to whatever’s required, and moreso, to do it himself without a legion of advisers and technicians.

The best player yet to win a major traditionally does so, in recent times, at the PGA. That should be good news for Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Cam Smith.

Cantlay continues to quietly consistent and while I was burned by Schauffele at the Masters, he was 23-under for his final 50 holes in Dallas at the weekend. If Scottie Scheffler hadn’t happened this year, we’d all be lauding Smith.

Europe? Jon Rahm obviously, Rory McIlroy maybe. I’m just hoping for a strong week from at least one of the young bucks who we’re going to need in Rome next year. We need some evidence Nicolas Hojgaard, Laurie Canter, Robert MacIntyre and Seamus Power can take the next step.

My five to watch? Spieth, Schauffele, Smith, Thomas and as a hunch, Joaquin Niemann.

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