One year ago at Medinah, the traditional grouping of major champions resonated with star power. British Open winner Tiger Woods and Masters titlist Phil Mickelson played side-by-side, joined by U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy, an amiable Australian who offered lively quips about his famous colleagues.
Thursday at steamy Southern Hills, when this year's three major winners tee off in the 89th PGA Championship, the group will not include Tiger Woods or Mickelson. Zach Johnson (Masters), Angel Cabrera (U.S. Open) and Padraig Harrington (British Open) might attract a decent gallery, but nothing like the roving pack of humanity that trailed golf's biggest names at last year's PGA.
This has been an unusual season in the majors: Johnson conquering rugged Augusta National, Cabrera holding off Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk at Oakmont, Harrington and Sergio Garcia tripping over themselves on the final hole at Carnoustie. Most unusual of all is this: Tiger Woods and Mickelson sitting on the brink of a winless year in the game's marquee tournaments.
Tiger Woods won two majors each of the past two years and has been shut out only three times in his career (1998, 2003 and 2004). Mickelson endured a long drought in the majors, of course, but he has won one in each of the past three years.
And the stars clearly judge their own performance on how they play on the grandest stages. Tiger Woods has won four times this year, including Sunday's emphatic victory at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he crushed the field with a bogey-free, final-round 65.
But to hear him describe his season Tuesday, none of that matters much unless he converts his last chance to win a major in 2007.
"My season has been pretty good but not great," Tiger Woods said. "I haven't won a major, and the majors are valued that highly. I've come close, but I just haven't gotten it done yet."
Tiger Woods tied for second at the Masters and the U.S. Open, then tied for 12th at the British Open. He arrives at the PGA with little history at Southern Hills - he tied for 21st in the Tour Championship in 1996, a week in which his dad was hospitalized nearby with chest pains, and he tied for 12th in the 2001 U.S. Open
Southern Hills is a tree-lined, dogleg-filled, par-70 layout not known as favorable to power hitters such as Tiger Woods. Then again, he suggested he will often use his 3-wood and 2-iron off the tee this week - and Tiger Woods can be ruthlessly efficient when his driver stays in the bag, as he showed in winning last year's British Open.
Mickelson, meantime, hopes simply to reappear on the radar. He has had an utterly strange season, winning at Pebble Beach in February, becoming red-hot after joining forces with swing coach Butch Harmon in April (including a victory at the Players Championship), then injuring his left wrist and plunging out of sight.
Look at Mickelson's last five events: withdrawal, three missed cuts and a tie for 46th at the Bridgestone. He has not even contended since the Players, nearly three months ago.
Mickelson finds encouragement in the state of his wrist, which is finally improving. Last week, for the first time since he sustained the injury, Mickelson did not need to "numb it up" with Novocain - and that allowed him to resume daily practice sessions.
Doctors told Mickelson he should be 100 percent in another two weeks, though he said he feels "very close" to full strength now.
"I feel like I'm just starting the second half of the season," Mickelson said. "I feel like I've missed a few months. Even though I've been playing, I really haven't been able to work on my game. I haven't been able to perform the way I want."
Mickelson often speaks of the exhilaration of winning the PGA in 2005, because he could savor the victory throughout the offseason. The flip side: an offseason after an empty year in the majors.
"To have to wait six months (actually eight) for the next major, that's a long time," Mickelson said.