DULUTH, Ga. -- The only question going into the PGA Championship last year was not who was going to win, but by how much.
Such were the expectations for Tiger Woods, and for good reason.
No one had ever won a major championship by 15 strokes, let alone a U.S. Open. Woods followed that with an eight-stroke victory at St. Andrews for the career Grand Slam and the largest margin in a British Open since 1913.
By the time Woods was finished, he joined Ben Hogan as the only professionals to win three majors in one year with his second straight PGA title, then became the only man to make it a clean sweep of the professional majors with his victory at the Masters.
Golf is back to normal. Woods actually bleeds.
A remarkable year of major championships concludes with the 83rd PGA Championship, and Woods remains a favorite to become the first player since Walter Hagen (1924-27) to win three straight.
Only this time, Woods has some legitimate challengers.
David Duval broke through at the British Open for his first major championship and is poised to claim another. Phil Mickelson gets his last chance this year to add a major to his 19 victories on the PGA Tour. U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen can become the first foreign player to claim two majors on American soil in one season.
''Even though Tiger has dominated this sport the last three years, you cannot take away from what David Duval has done, or what Phil Mickelson has been accomplishing or when Retief Goosen did what he did at the U.S. Open,'' Mark O'Meara said.
''Certainly, Tiger is at an unbelievable level. But when he's just a little off his game, guys can beat him. That has happened.''
Whether that trend continues will be decided on the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club, where a major championship returns for the first time in 20 years.
Woods has not played a competitive round (no, the Battle at Bighorn doesn't count) since he took triple bogey in the final round of the British Open and wound up nine strokes behind Duval in a tie for 25th, his worst finish in a major in nearly four years.
It also was his fourth straight tournament out of the top 10, his longest such stretch since 1997. Still, he was able to joke about it.
''How long has it been since I won one of those (majors), anyway?'' Woods asked.
Reminded that his two-stroke victory over Duval at Augusta National was only four months ago, Woods quipped, ''That was back when I was in my prime.''
He appears to be primed for the PGA.
Woods bailed out of the Buick Open to get ready for the final major of the year, the championship where he has squeezed out narrow victories the past two years.
In 1999, he overcame a late challenge from Sergio Garcia to win by one stroke at Medinah. Last year, he became the first back-to-back champion since the PGA went to stroke play in 1958, making birdies on the last two holes to force a three-hole playoff against unheralded Bob May.
More exclusive company awaits Woods should he make it three in a row.
No one has ever won two majors in one year in the same state. And another major would make Woods only the seventh player to have at least two multiple-major seasons.
But now that some of his mystique has worn off, now that there is evidence Woods won't win every major, Duval & Co. seem up to the challenge. The PGA Championship features the strongest field of all the majors, with 97 out of the top 100 from the world ranking.
Leading the way is Duval, buoyed by his three-stroke victory at the British Open with rounds of 65-67 on the weekend.
''He's been such a good player for such a long time to not have won one,'' two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els said. ''The way he did it was awesome. So, who knows what he can do from here?''
Duval has a history of winning in bunches.
He was a runner-up seven times on the PGA Tour before he won his first tournament and proceeded to kick down the door. Duval won his next two starts, and went on to win 11 times in 34 events to replace Woods as No. 1 in the world in 1999.
Does the same hold true for majors?
''I don't have a feeling of relief from what happened,'' Duval said. ''I have a feeling of accomplishment.''
He has some experience at Atlanta Athletic Club as a four-time All-American at Georgia Tech. Still, the course figures to be a new experience for just about everyone. Only nine players in the 150-man field played it during the 1981 PGA.
The course measures 7,213 yards, plays to a par 72 and features the longest closing hole in PGA Championship history. The 18th is 490 yards to a green guarded by bunkers on the left and by water in front and to the right.
Mickelson has had success in Atlanta -- two prestigious junior victories, his Tour Championship victory over Woods at East Lake and a playoff victory over Gary Nicklaus last year at the BellSouth Classic.
Still, the pressure is mounting.
With Duval having won his major and Colin Montgomerie in the twilight of his career, the focus clearly shifts to the 31-year-old Mickelson as the best to have never won a major.
''Phil is still young and has plenty of time to win a major and become a competitive force,'' Jack Nicklaus said.
As Woods strolled into the record books by sweeping the four majors, Nicklaus lamented there was no one to challenge him. Nicklaus said he at least had guys with major championship experience ready to pounce should he falter, whether it was Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino or Tom Watson.
Now, Nicklaus sees a new scenario emerging.
''The same thing is going to happen to Tiger,'' he said. ''There's a lot of them out there. Give them a chance. Once they win, there will be more and more competition in major championship golf.''
The PGA Championship could be the start.
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