All eyes on Tiger as the man to beat at Hazeltine

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CHASKA, Aug 12 – Victories the past two weeks have made Tiger Woods the favorite when the 91st PGA Championship begins Thursday at Hazeltine, even against a field with nearly all of the world's 100 top players.TIGER_CROUCH"It’s the best field we play against," Woods said. "You know if you win this championship you have beaten the best field in all of golf."

World number one Woods has won five events this season, including his last tuneup event for every major. That includes the Buick Open two weeks ago and last week’s World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.

"He’s got a pretty good chance, probably better than anybody else in the field," British Open champion Stewart Cink said.

"The guy is driving it pretty well. He has got a short game that history has never known. He’s got the clutch putting that history has never known and he’s got the ultimate tank of confidence to draw from. So case closed."

After missing the cut last month at Turnberry, Woods rebounded so well that he could sense improvement in practice sessions this month ahead of his 69th and 70th career titles.

"I feel as if I made some pretty good strides since the British Open," said Woods. "I had some nice practice sessions before the Buick and especially on Monday and Tuesday after the Buick.

"I really had some good work. It was evident the way I was hitting the golf ball. I really hit it good. Hopefully I can improve on that and carry that over into this week."

Woods birdied the last four holes at the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine but settled for second by a stroke to fellow American Rich Beem, the playing partner with Woods and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington for the first two rounds.

"It narrows your focus a bit playing with both those gentlemen. They do drag you along with them, which is nice because Lord knows I need some help," said Beem, who has not won since his 2002 PGA crown.

Since then, the par-72 course has been lengthened by 325 yards to 7,674.

"It’s a heck of a lot longer than what we played in 2002," Woods said. "How they set up the par-5s will certainly determine what guys do."

Most players suspect the PGA of America will not stick tees at their most distant points, moving them to make the toughest risk-reward decisions on every player from the longest driver to the short-game specialist.

"It’s going to be a real test," Cink said. "I have a feeling they will juggle some tees around and make it a little more interesting."

US veteran Jim Furyk likes Woods’s chances over the longest course in PGA Championship history in part because there are four par-5 holes, three of them longer than 600 yards.

"I wouldn’t count him out anywhere, but it’s an advantage for long hitters to have four par-5s," Furyk said. "I don’t feel overly stressed. But I notice three par-5s over 600 yards. That’s kind of funny."

World number two Phil Mickelson, back after caring for his wife and mother as they began breast cancer treatments, and two-time PGA Championship winner Vijay Singh of Fiji are among the long hitters who should thrive at Hazeltine.

"You’re not going to make a course too long for Tiger and Phil and Vijay," Furyk said.

Beem, however, warned that this course might be close if played to the full distance.

"I pretty much know what it looks like from 7,600 yards and it ain’t pretty," Beem said. "This thing is long. I mean it’s just excessively long. It’s nowhere near the same course it was. But it’s still a fair test of golf."

South Africa’s Ernie Els, who shared eighth at the British Open, likes the state of his game as he bids for a fourth major but his first PGA Championship.

"It’s a very long course but they have given us a lot of room to hit the ball into," Els said. "I really feel like I’m hitting the ball really well so I’m really looking forward to this week."

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