Plenty of golfers have a chance entering final round of the 2010 PGA Championship

Nick Watney fires off five birdies in the opening seven holes en route to a 6-under-par 66 and a three-shot advantage entering the final round.
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; 8:28 PM


Mass confusion reigned at the PGA Championship - and so did the masses. For two days fog and wind had ruled at Whistling Straits; Thursday's first round wasn't finished until after lunchtime Friday, and Friday's second round wasn't done until brunch on Saturday. But then the wind died, and the sun shone, and it was anyone's guess what would happen on Sunday, because the course was suddenly offering up free prizes to all comers.

Without mist to cloak it and breezes to protect it, the weaknesses of Whistling Straits were revealed. The 7,507-yard, par-72 course is a fearsome-looking thing, styled to resemble a wind-whipped Irish links course, but it's also got a gentle underside. "You wouldn't find a links course in Ireland that plays that soft," Rory McIlroy said earlier this week. Was there a predatory suggestion in the remark? Absolutely, judging by the way the 21-year-old Irishman has attacked the course for 17 birdies to stand in a tie for second place. Those petrifying mounds and jagged-edged bunkers? They turned out to be mostly tricks, toothless optical illusions. In the still afternoon heat, the players treated the course like a picnic spot by the lakeside. "It was nice out there today," McIlroy said casually.

The scoring flurries were too numerous to keep track of. There was leader Nick Watney, the 29-year-old northern Californian with a sweet swing and goofy smile, reeling off five birdies in the first seven holes for a 66 and total of 13-under-par 203, and fending off pursuers from various nations, including Germany and China. No disrespect to Wenchong Liang, 32, the only Chinese player in the top 100 in the world, but when a guy who had missed the cut in three of his four previous majors sets the course record with a 64 to move into a tie for fourth, you know that the layout has thrown its doors open.

Six years ago when Whistling Straits hosted the PGA Championship, it was gusty and punishing, roughing up eventual champion Vijay Singh for a 76 in the final round. But on Saturday Whistling Straits rewarded every kind of player, from the 26-year-old bomber and gouger Dustin Johnson to the precise 40-year-old veteran Jim Furyk.

Furyk was one of the few men in contention who has actually lofted a trophy ¿ none of the top six men on the leader board has ever won a major. He lacked the length to take as much advantage of the course as some others, but he hung around at 8-under 208 with sheer know how. He is expert in playing courses designed by Pete Dye, the man responsible for Whistling Straits's artful layout. Furyk lives in Ponte Vedra, Fla., near the Dye-designed Players Championship course at Sawgrass. By now he is familiar with Dye's penchant for creating intimidating optical techniques, and knows what to tune out from his peripheral vision.

"When you play one of his courses for the first time your eyes start going out this way and you're looking at all the trouble rather than where you're supposed to put it and sometimes it's hard to figure out," he said.

If there was a discernible trend or pattern on the leader board by the time the scrum-like third round was over, it was youth. The board was crammed with the names of ambitious young guns, twentysomethings who believe it's their turn to win a major, from McIlroy to Johnson to Martin Kaymer, the lanky 25-year-old German whose 67 put him at 9 under. "We're definitely moving forward, that's for sure," Johnson said.

The top two players in the world, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, are each spraying the ball and dealing with off-the-course distractions, Mickelson his arthritis and his wife's cancer, Woods the dissolution of his marriage in a cheating scandal. As a result, we have experienced a cluster of first-time winners, from Y.E. Yang in last year's PGA to Graeme McDowell at the U.S. Open and Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open. It's surely tantalizing to the cadre of lean young players in their 20s who are showing so much potential but are still undecorated.

Watney has been knocking at the door all season, tying for seventh at both the Masters and the British Open. McIlroy has played in just six previous majors, but he has finished in the top 10 of three of them. Johnson held a three-stroke lead in the U.S. Open.

"The major championships have got a lot more wide open, it seems, in the last couple of years, the likes of Yang winning last year at the PGA, and Graeme and Louis," McIlroy said earlier this week. "So it would be nice to keep that trend going."

So far, however, when given a chance to hoist a trophy, the younger set have tended to blow up instead of breaking through. Everyone will be waiting for Watney to stumble the way Johnson did at the U.S. Open, when he collapsed with a final round 82. "I got maybe a little impatient, started moving a little too fast," Johnson said, "and tomorrow I'm really just going to focus on being patient and hitting quality golf shots."

If anyone can be termed a favorite in the group, it would have to be McIlroy. Before the British Open Tom Watson told the UK golf publication Golf Magic, "The kid's ready for a major." But McIlroy followed up a course record at St. Andrews with an 80, before finishing third. Has he learned enough patience yet? "There's going to be a lot of guys thinking that it's the right time for them to break through and I'm definitely one of those guys," McIlroy said before the tournament began. If the weather stays mild the young power hitter will have Whistling Straits's forgivingness in his favor. "I feel as if I'm playing well enough to really give it a good go," he said.

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