JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - The reason why golf is such a diabolical game is that eventually, it will expose every weakness you have, forcing you to either adapt and overcome, or surrender. If you're wobbly off the tee, you're going to find yourself in a critical situation standing at the head of a snake-twisting hole. If your putter is equally (in)effective no matter which end you use, you'll find yourself with putt after must-make putt from six feet out.
And if you're a fan who screams that golf is too much about Tiger Woods and not enough about "the little guys with good stories who play well," you'll find yourself at the start of a major championship Sunday with a leaderboard that has all the star power of a post office line.
The 93rd PGA Championship concluded its Saturday play with two guys who probably still get stopped by security on their way into tournaments, Jason Dufner (above) and Brendan Steele. Dufner's claim to fame, aside from two Nationwide wins, comes in the context of loss: he lost a playoff to Mark Wilson earlier this year, and only got into the Open Championship because Tiger Woods withdrew. Steele, a Tour rookie, won the Valero Texas Open earlier this year; he got on the PGA Tour thanks to a win in last season's Nationwide Tour Championship.
So, yes, you've got two relatively anonymous players in the mix for golf's final major of the 2011 season. The closest names most casual golf fans would recognize are Steve Stricker, golf's equivalent of the Milwaukee Brewers (Midwestern, quite good now but burdened by a past history of average play), and Adam Scott, now very much in the mix for that Greatest-Never-To-Win-A-Major tag. Stricker is three back, Scott five.
Thus, what we have here is a perfect litmus test for fans of golf. This isn't like the Super Bowl, where the presence of teams with as, shall we say, limited fanbases as Seattle and Arizona don't stop the game from being a worldwide event. No, golf is a star-driven game, and it's been thus since its earliest days. From Hagen to Jones to Nelson to Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Woods to McIlroy, golf has always relied on the star power of its champions, even as the grind-it-out players win more, in the aggregate, than the stars.
Sunday at the PGA Championship is setting up for a classic golf finish. You've got several stars hungry for their first major (the aforementioned Stricker and Scott, plus Lee Westwood and Luke Donald) along with a couple more looking for validation (Jim Furyk, Charl Schwartzel). The course is set up as short as it's been all week. And yet, ratings will probably be down, simply because Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy aren't factors.
So, in stark relief, we have the question: which makes for a better golf-watching experience, star power or compelling storylines? We're about to find out.
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