Taking a closer look at 2012's majors

The calendar has turned on another year, one golf season melding into the next. Golf never really ends these days, it takes mini breaks, but we're about to go full steam ahead into the 2012 season, one that begins on the PGA Tour with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the European Tour with the Africa Open.

But golf revolves around the major championships, which is why there is typically a letdown following the PGA Championship; players and fans know it's a long seven and a half months until the Masters, despite the multitude of tournaments played in the interim.

Now, however, we're just three short months away from the year's first major at Augusta National, a time that typically flies by with anticipation. Once again, there will be just four opportunities for players to add their names to the game's biggest trophies.

With that in mind, here is a quick look at the 2012 majors and their venues.

The Masters
The one major whose venue does not change, the Masters will be played for the 76th time (April 5-8) at Augusta National Golf Club. Despite the tournament being staged at one of the most famous courses in the world, the subtle -- and sometimes not too subtle -- changes to the course over the years always have you wondering what is in store for the field, almost up until the day the tournament begins.

This year, the Masters would do well to come close to the kind of Sunday excitement it produced during the final round of the 2011 tournament. From Rory McIlroy's 4-shot lead disintegrating to Tiger Woods' fist-pumping eagle to tie at the eighth to the near-misses by Aussies Geoff Ogilvy, Jason Day and Adam Scott and to the four-birdie finish by winner Charl Schwartzel, the tournament had a bit of everything.

No. 1-ranked Luke Donald has said the Masters is the major he would think he is most suited to win, but it won't be easy. Countryman Lee Westwood keeps pushing for his first major, too. Woods has tied for fourth in each of the past two years. Phil Mickelson won his fourth major when he captured the Masters two years ago. There will undoubtedly be numerous story lines.

The U.S. Open
For the fifth time, the U.S. Open is headed to San Francisco's Olympic Club (June 14-17), where upstarts and underdogs have ruled. The most famous example occurred at the 1955 Open, where unheralded and little-known club pro Jack Fleck rallied to tie Ben Hogan on the final day -- the brief television broadcast had gone off the air -- then defeated him the next day in an 18-hole playoff.

In 1966, Arnold Palmer blew a 7-shot lead over the final nine holes, then lost to Billy Casper in an 18-hole playoff. Tom Watson was clearly the sentimental pick in 1987, but Scott Simpson prevailed by two strokes. And in the last Open played at Olympic in 1998, Payne Stewart was the tough-luck loser to Lee Janzen, who nonetheless won the Open for the second time -- although he has failed to win since.

The tournament will be played on the Lake course, one of two 18-hole layouts on the property. The course measures just 7,145 yards. Since the '98 Open, hundreds of trees have been removed and more than 300 yards has been added to the layout. The greens have been changed to bent grass, the par-3 eighth completely revamped, and the controversial 18th given a wider and less sloped fairway.

Still, it is relatively short by today's standards, which should mean more strategy as it relates to tee shots and positioning. And we'll see how deep the rough is, and how severe the course is set up, especially following McIlroy's assault on par last year at Congressional.

The British Open
The Open Championship -- the official name of the tournament -- returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes (July 19-22) for the first time since 2001, when David Duval won his first and only major championship. Located about an hour from Manchester on England's northwest coast, this will be the 11th Open at Lytham dating to 1926, when American Bobby Jones won the Claret Jug. (It also hosted two Ryder Cups.)

Lytham is not generally regarded among the top venues in the nine-course rota. It has an unusual start with a par-3, is not overly long, but has some 200 bunkers and can be very exacting, especially when the wind blows.

Like many links, depending on conditions, you need to do your damage on the outward nine, then hang on coming in. The front has three par-3s; the back ends with six consecutive par-4s.

Two victories by Seve Ballesteros suggest the course is a scrambler's delight, and given what happened last year at Royal St. George's -- where Darren Clarke was the surprise winner -- perhaps prognosticating is not such a good idea when it comes to the Open Championship.

The Open dates to 1860, but this year marks a first -- it is being held in England for the second straight year, something that has never before occurred in the tournament's history.

The PGA Championship
For the first time, the PGA Championship (Aug. 9-12) will be played at Kiawah Island, S.C., site of the famous American Ryder Cup victory in 1991. A remarkable setting for the match play format of the Ryder Cup, it remains to be seen how the year's fourth major championship will come off in what could be some sweltering conditions.

Of course, that is nothing new for this tournament, which in 2007 played to 100-plus-degree temperatures in Tulsa, and last year was far from comfortable in Atlanta. At least Kiawah offers the possibility of an ocean breeze.

The Ocean course was recently acclaimed by Golf Digest to be the toughest course in America, an honor that a resort course might not want to boast about. If the PGA of America so wishes, it can push the yardage for the tournament beyond 7,600 yards. There is plenty of sand, water and heat, however, to make the place difficult enough without length.

The par-3 17th remains infamous for Mark Calcavecchia's struggles there as he was unable to put away Colin Montgomerie in a singles match during the 1991 Ryder Cup. Calc had Monty 4-down with four holes to play and was still 2 up on the 17th tee when the Scotsman dunked his tee shot in the water. Calc followed in the drink and lost the hole -- as well as the next.

It's possible that kind of pressure could be in play when the tournament title is on the line come August. Most of the competitors will see the course for the first time in August, and given the tournament's wide-open nature -- Keegan Bradley won the PGA last year in his first major appearance -- and the chance for warm, difficult conditions, the possibilities are endless.

And then... it will be another long wait for the next major championship.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.