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Major trouble on the rise

Medinah, site of the PGA Championship, continues a trend of punishing courses.

They peer around doglegs, looking for gremlins in the grass. They approach water hazards, sticking in only their toes. They arrive at Medinah Country Club, expecting trouble. Who would blame them?

The year's fourth and final major championship begins Thursday, and the competitors are understandably wary. They've endured their share of trauma this year, from rough at Augusta to severely sloped greens at Pinehurst to complete carnage at Carnoustie.

What's next? Simply the longest course in major championship history, a 7,401-yardersome 300 yards longer than when Medinah No. 3 was the site for the 1990 U.S. Open.

"I dare say, this might be the longest course I've played, ever," Greg Norman said. "I look forward to seeing how they play it. I just don't want to see figures like 6, 7, 8 over par becoming a norm for winning a major championship."

It sure appears headed in that direction. The recent trend has been to make the major championship courses as difficult as possible, to ensure that the vaunted venues produce red faces rather than red numbers.

This year we've seen only one player break par at the U.S. Open and a winning score of 6 over at the British Open. In 1959, '63 and '72, the aggregate scores of the majors winners was 5 under, the highest on record. This year's aggregate is 3 under.

"Carnoustie was obviously the most difficult British Open course we played," eight-time major championship winner Tom Watson said. "The Masters, the scores were not very low. I thought the U.S. Open was set up fairly, the way it should be played. With Carnoustie in there to really skew the difficulty, these are probably the four most difficult (majors) courses we play."

Blame it on Tiger Woods. Since winning the 1997 Masters in record-setting fashion, shooting a 18-under 270, the majors sites have gotten tougher.

In the past two years of U.S. and British Opens, just one player has broken par for 72 holes _ Payne Stewart this year at Pinehurst. Lee Janzen's winning total at the Olympic Club last year was par, as was Mark O'Meara's at Royal Birkdale a year ago. And since his 1997 Masters victory, Woods has failed to break 70 in eight trips around Augusta National, which added rough, lengthened tees and added trees. (Jose Maria Olazabal's winning score was 8 under at the Masters.)

This year no one broke par at the British Open, and just six players finished better than 10 over. Winner Paul Lawrie's score of 6 over (which played off with Jean Van de Velde and Justin Leonard) was the highest since Hale Irwin was 7 over in winning the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The cut was 12 over, the highest since 13 over made it at Winged Foot.

When players complained about the narrow fairways and brutal rough, they were flogged for whining.

"The Open championship at Carnoustie has given joy to those misguided souls among us who think the international professional golfing community is full of pampered, overpaid automatons of modest ability," an editorial said in Scotland on Sunday.

The commentary took a shot at golfers who are "accustomed to picking up obscenely gross cheques on the American tour. There they play on courses where the only degree of difficulty may come when they are confronted by those charming little paddling pools which pass for water hazards. In America they have bunkers that are easier to get out of than a children's sand pit."

Yet when is it too much? Irwin forged a reputation for winning on stern layouts, but even he was startled to learn about the length of Medinah.

"You've got to be kidding me," Irwin said. "When you can't see the green from the tee, you know that's a real stretch."

The rating for the par-72 course is 77.1, with a slope of 149. Only the 1967 PGA Championship at Columbine Country Club in the thin air of Littleton, Colo., was longer at 7,436 yards. With 4- to 5-inch rough and more than 4,200 trees, the fairways will look like walking paths.

And the folks at Medinah want it that way. Although most remember the 1990 U.S. Open for Irwin's romp around the 18th green after making a 60-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, Medinah officials were miffed when the Open record of 8 under was matched by Irwin and Mike Donald. The tournament also yielded a record number of sub-par scores.

"That course (in 1990) was compromised by the USGA (United States Golf Association)," said Dan Quast, Medinah's grounds manager. "They set up the course so easy. I don't think that's going to happen again. There's no tricks here, and I think the players will say it was very fair. But I'm not concerned about comments from players."

Perhaps there is some ego involved. Medinah is a proud club, having hosted three U.S. Opens (1949, '75, '90), three Western Opens ('39, '62, '66) and a U.S. Senior Open ('88). Abe Espinosa, Tommy Armour and Ralph Guldahl were among the club's early professionals.

Rather than see their course wounded, they prefer to see the players suffer.

At least that's the trend.