Even Phil Mickelson in contention cannot create buzz at the 2008 PGA Championship. Column: At Oakland Hills, theories abound on Michigan's PGA Championship malaise

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - It's 4:45 p.m. on a beautiful Michigan Friday afternoon that even one of those relentlessly chipper Detroit tourism people couldn't have dreamed up. Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson are both even par, one shot out of the lead in the PGA Championship, playing the back nine one group apart.

And the galleries around them are not even consistently one row deep. There's enough open rope space here that Yao Ming could lay completely stretched out on the grass and not touch a soul. If someone's staring at the back of someone's head, they have to be in a concession stand line.

It's 4:45 p.m. on a weekend that's long started in an area where rush hour begins at 3 p.m. and the PGA Learning Center, a setback cool enclave of high-tech teaching and free golf lessons, is largely empty. Maybe eight people are gathered around for a free putting clinic.

It's 4:45 p.m. on the second day of the last major of the season and the PGA Championship Golf Shop - the merchandise center that's six times the size of the Learning Center - is completely packed. Fans duck around displays and each other. The army of cashiers hold up large placards reading "open" so customers can see where there's a free register amongst the rows of madness.

"I don't like golf," Macomb's Debbie Wilcox beams, clutching two full plastic bags of PGA Championship logo merchandise. "But I love pretty shirts."

If you do love golf, you should be very afraid of what's happening at this 90th PGA Championship. It might not be the end of the world as we know it, but you can sure see how you could get there from here.

The lack of noticeable fever - or even a slight sweat - over this major championship is so impossible to miss that even the local media, which usually cheerleads these tournaments with the force of a pep squad on acid, is mentioning it. There are more wild theories floating around about the cause than you get in an Oliver Stone movie.

One Detroit newspaper actually suggested that the fact Detroit's mayor went to jail on Thursday has beaten people down and made them fun-resistant. As if all the suburban fans who are the market for a golf tournament in the middle of the suburbs are torn up over Kwame Kilpatrick's endless drama. Never mind the truth that most of these people go to Bangladesh about as often as they actually venture into downtown Detroit on non-game days or non-casino nights.

More popular than the mayor-mess hangover is the supposed Olympic overshadowing. As if everyone in the Midwest is so fixated on the pre-packed NBC drama - from a games that almost no fans who aren't actually Chinese are attending - that they forgot golf's best players are in their backyard.

Not wanting to be outdone, the European media, largely led by the BBC, is going with the Lee Westwood theory. The idea that the majors just aren't any fun anymore because of these sadistic setup artists (I'd rather just be home on a beach, too, you American dopes).

This one has some merit - when it comes to the excitement level at the course. The PGA of America inexplicably went USGA this year somehow not realizing that the USGA itself abandoned those arcane notions to produce the greatest U.S. Open ever at Torrey Pines.

It's also hard to not like Westwood, who's much more genuinely comical about the whole thing than Phil Mickelson was with his "this is the USGA's wet dream," rant at Oakmont Country Club. When a few on-top-of-it golf fans yell out, "Can you see the sea, Lee?" referring to Westwood's remarks about telling his caddie he could already see the seaside home he'd be escaping to this weekend during round one, Westwood breaks into a big grin.

So, yes, the setup is too hard, not well-thought out and more drama draining than Sylvester Stallone appearing in a movie. That doesn't keep people away from a tournament, though. It might turn them off when they arrive, but it's not causing anyone not to buy tickets.

The harsh reality may be that golf, even major championship golf, doesn't move the needle at all in certain parts of the country. Would the crowds at Oakland Hills Country Club be better if Tiger Woods swung his magic? Sure. But it's doubtful they'd be 50 percent larger or 75 percent more engaged, and even if they somehow were, they still wouldn't come close to Torrey.

Even the people coming to Oakland Hills seem more passionate about getting a "big event" souvenir than watching Garcia or Mickelson come down the stretch.

PGA Championship at least stands for something

In some ways, all this disinterest is a shame. For all the flack it takes about being the fourth major, the PGA Championship actually at least stands for something. There are tons of club pros here from all over Michigan and around the country, giving their time to give out free 10-minute lessons at the Learning Center. At least there's a real commitment to something of a cause: trying to keep people golfing.

What's the Masters stand for? A bunch of rich old geezers being able to pretend it's still 1950? What's the U.S. Open all about? Growing the game by growing those tents ever larger? The British Open, somewhat to it's credit, doesn't even really feign to be about some grand socioeconomic scheme - except if it's proving that rain can fall sideways.

Oakland Hills South makes for a great fan experience, too. It's such a crammed together old school track - the No. 11 tee almost touches a 17th green bunker, to the point where Mickelson commented on a nice sand save right before teeing off - that it's easy for spectators to get much closer to the players than is possible on almost any PGA Tour course.

Still, even Phil, Sergio and Anthony Kim don't bring any fan rushes, no mad dashes from spot to spot.

This is like watching a major played on Mars. Seeing this scene, those who love golf should feel chills. Just not the good kind.

August 9, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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