No guarantees when it comes to PGA

CHASKA, Minn. -- It isn't always Tiger Woods in a runaway at the majors.

It just seems that way.

But for every 12-shot win in The Masters, 15-shot win in the U.S. Open and eight-shot win at the British Open, there's been a battle during Woods' remarkable string of seven major wins in his last 12 tries.

And two of the most memorable have come in the PGA Championship.

In 1999 at Medinah, when the streak began, Woods watched a five-shot lead shrink to one and had to hold off a surging Sergio Garcia on the back nine to win by a shot.

A year later at Valhalla, Woods had to shoot 31 on the back nine just to match Bob May, then needed a 25-foot birdie putt to help win a three-hole playoff.

Since Valhalla, Woods has won the 2001 Masters (by two shots over David Duval), the 2002 Masters (by three shots over Retief Goosen) and the 2002 U.S. Open (by three shots over Phil Mickelson).

Now he's back at the PGA, which begins Thursday at Hazeltine National, a course that, if it stays dry and the ball rolls, will bring a slew of players into the title mix.

But then again, the PGA always seems to do that. Historically, more than any other major, it has lent itself to surprises.

Eleven of the last 14 winners have made it their first major title. In that stretch, new names on the Wanamaker Trophy have included Jeff Sluman, Wayne Grady, Steve Elkington and Mark Brooks. David Toms won the PGA last year for his first major, outlasting Mickelson.

John Daly won in 1991 as the ninth alternate after driving all night from Memphis to Indianapolis just to make his first-round tee time.

Any more questions?

"The first three majors are so different," said Woods. "...The greens are always the thing that is the defining characteristic of The Masters. The U.S. Open is the high rough, narrow fairways, hard-brick greens. And the (British) Open championship is au natural, just not water on the golf course and go play it."

And the PGA?

"When you come to the PGA, it's very similar to a U.S. Open," Woods said. "The only difference is ... the fairways have been a little bit more generous than the U.S. Open. These are the size of the fairways that we are accustomed to on the (PGA) Tour. I think that has a lot to do with it."

"I think the PGA tries to identify a more complete player," said Mickelson. "That is why players value this tournament."

Hazeltine will identify complete players from the field of 156, which includes 99 of the top 100 players in the world ranking (making this, statistically, the toughest field ever in a major). It's the fifth-longest course in major history (7,360 yards), but Woods says the fairways have been rolling 40-plus yards during practice rounds.

The greens are fast and will be faster by the weekend, but they're relatively generous by major standards. And the rough, while thick, isn't as penalizing as the four-inch-deep coffin balls went into at Bethpage Black for the U.S. Open.

"It's fair, but not like a Bethpage," said Stewart Cink. "There will be some guys under par."

If it turns into a birdiefest, Woods, Mickelson, Garcia and Els would seem to have the most weapons in their bag. Aside from Woods, nobody's been more complete in the majors this year than Garcia, who has three top-10 finishes (Padraig Harrington is the only other player to do that this year).

However, in two of the three, Garcia ballooned on Sunday, shooting 75 at Augusta National and 74 at Bethpage Black. He was never in contention at Muirfield.

"(I need to) make more putts," Garcia said. "That's what it comes down to, making putts." Garcia is tied for 90th in putting average this year on the PGA Tour.

Els won his third career major at the British Open, then tied for fourth at the International.

Mickelson continues without a major, and he was 7-over three years ago at Medinah, a course many of the players compare Hazeltine to.

"The golf course is very challenging and very playable," Mickelson said. "It's really a fun test for a major championship."

Toms defends, but while he's won more than $2 million this year on the PGA Tour, he hasn't won since last year at Kingsmill.

Among the others would could be factors if scores plummet at Hazeltine: Davis Love III, Vijay Singh and Tom Lehman, the Minnesota native who's been inundated by fans throughout the week.

One thing is for sure: Don't fall too far behind. The last five PGA champs all held or shared the lead after three rounds.

The biggest upset would be if Woods isn't near the lead heading into Sunday. And if he's tied or leading after 54 holes, he's won 25 of 27 times in his professional career.

"It's unbelievably difficult," Woods said. "To be able to go out there and have your game peak for that one week and deal with all of the different circumstances you have to deal with that particular week ...

"You're going to get bad breaks, you're going to get good breaks. You've just got to move on and handle your business. That's not always easy."

He's just made it look that way.

"I've been fortunate to have my game peak at the right time," Woods said. "But also, I've gotten some great breaks. I've had some bad shots end up in good spots where I can turn a bogey into a birdie, and sometimes that changes things around. It could change it around from a 73 or 74 into a 69 or 68.

"Sometimes, it's something that simple that changes the entire tournament. That's usually what happens and that's how you win those tournaments."