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PGA CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW: Happy hour for PGA of America

It’s a great time to be the PGA Championship.

With a new spring date, a thrilling venue in Bethpage Black, and the return of Tiger-mania, it’s happy hour for the PGA of America.

For years, the PGA Championship was last in line for majors and hunting for an identity. April had the Masters and the magic, June had the U.S. Open and the moxie, July had the British Open and the history. Then came August. August had the PGA Championship, and, um, NFL pre-season?

For a time, as the season’s final major, the PGA of America marketed its championship as “Glory’s Last Chance.” It finally bailed on that slogan, perhaps realizing it evoked an image of a bunch of tour pros circling an empty bar looking for the last girl to dance with.

Well, those days are over. With the reshuffled golf schedule this season, the PGA Championship becomes the season’s second major, and the May date brings with it renewed opportunity.

“Obviously, we’re excited about the date change from a conditioning standpoint in that the cool season grasses will and should be a lot healthier,” said Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer and course set-up guru for the PGA of America. “They will be sort of improving, as opposed to in the August date previously, we were sort of more on a hanging-on, keeping-the-grass, the-cool-season-grasses-alive mode.”

Haigh was talking about the turf conditions but he might as well have been talking about the championship. To some extent, that’s what it had become. With summer winding down and the NFL season about to cast its giant shadow over the North American sports market, the PGA Championship was left hanging on, with tournament organizers in a keeping-the-golf-season-alive mode.

Now, the PGA Championship is full of potential. It’s early enough in the golf season that every player in the field still can feel that anything is possible in 2019. The second major of the season gets underway on Thursday at Bethpage Black, a public course on Long Island, 40 miles outside of Manhattan.

Despite the move to May, tournament organizers are keeping with the tradition of pairing the previous three major winners together for the first two rounds. Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari tee off at 8:24 a.m. on Thursday.

For the first time in major championship history, barring any late withdrawals, all of the world’s top 100-ranked players will be in the field, including Canadians Adam Hadwin and Corey Conners.

A month removed from his first PGA Tour win at the Valero Texas Open, Conners, who was set to arrive in New York on Sunday, has high hopes for the week despite only having seen Bethpage on TV and in video games.

“I think the course sets up perfectly for me,” Conners told Postmedia.

“I know I can get myself in the mix. I like the challenges I’ll be facing. Obviously, a top ten finish would be awesome.”

The course is a tree-lined brute and one of five public courses at Bethpage State Park. The Black course is the toughest of the bunch and famously features a sign near the first tee that reads: “WARNING: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

This week for the PGA Championship, the course is a 7,432-yard par 70, with three par fours over 500 yards and one par five that will play more than 600 yards. There are sprawling white bunkers nearly everywhere. In fact, the course’s 76 sand traps take up nearly eight acres of land. The Black course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and Joe Burbeck, who hoped it would become something of a public Pine Valley, the world-renowned private course in southern New Jersey.

Driving the ball well will be a must for any player hoping to contend. The rough at the Black Course is nasty as fans will remember from the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens — the previous major championships hosted at the course — won by Tiger Woods and Lucas Glover. Don’t expect PGA Championship course set-up man Haigh to torque the course up to U.S. Open standards, as the PGA Championship has historically preferred more scoring-friendly conditions.

That doesn’t mean you want to be in the rough though.

“Our plan is for it to be 3 1/2 to 4 inches long, and again, the anticipation based on what we saw the last two springtimes is that it should be pretty healthy and growing fairly quickly,” Haigh said of the rough. “So it will be a challenge, and it will be pretty tough if you get into it.”

Mother Nature might have a hand in cranking the course difficulty though. Spring often brings more wind than summer and with rain this past weekend and potentially more in the forecast, the long course will play even longer and the rough will play even nastier.

“That’s a tough golf course,” defending PGA Championship winner Koepka said during an early press conference for the tournament. “It’s fun to play, it really is. I think the best part about it is the average golfer, if they go out there and play, they can relate to us when we go out there or we can relate to them. You’ll see it, you’ll probably see guys lose their head, the frustration for how difficult it is.”

There definitely will be some frowning golfers at the end of the week at Bethpage Black, but for the PGA Championship, it’s all smiles.

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