By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - In the eyes of the players and many of the fans, this week's U.S. PGA Championship at Whistling Straits is wide open for the taking, especially given the recent struggles of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
World number one Woods produced his worst ever PGA Tour finish at last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational where Mickelson, poised to take over at the top of the rankings for the first time, spectacularly flopped in Sunday's final round.
Add to that the fact that there have been five first-time winners in the last six majors and you have the recipe for an intriguing menu over the next four days on the Straits Course.
"There's no doubt about it, this is probably as wide open a major as we have seen in a long time," American world number four Steve Stricker told reporters on Wednesday.
"And I still think Tiger and Phil are going to be there come Sunday. Last week, they played not very well ... but I imagine they will get their games going here."
Stricker, who has triumphed twice on the PGA Tour this season, said he and his peers were excited by the large number of players capable of winning at Whistling Straits this week.
"It is wide open and as players we all sense that too," he added. "If you can play well and get it going, then you have a great opportunity to win here."
British world number nine Paul Casey agreed.
"The feeling in the locker room is slightly different," said the Englishman, who tied for third in last month's British Open at St. Andrews.
"With the way he (Woods) played the past week, guys feel like this tournament is wide open, and that's not a feeling that a lot of guys have had before."
Woods has been a shadow of his former dominant self since becoming embroiled in a sex scandal at the end of last year and professional golf has never enjoyed greater strength in depth.
"When you have one player dominating and winning consistently, very few people are gaining confidence. If anything, it's going to work in the opposite way."
Woods, comfortably the leading player of his generation and a 14-times major winner, has not triumphed on the PGA Tour since the BMW Championship last September.
Although he has won the PGA Championship four times, most recently in 2007, even his strongest backers this week will feel wary based on his fluctuating fortunes in 2010.
Since his double life was exposed amid revelations of marital infidelities, Woods has clearly lost the aura of invincibility he once enjoyed over his rivals.
"But the whole idea is to keep making progress each and every day. And that's one of the things I am excited about the last few days is I have made some good progress."
A closing 77 left Woods tied for second-last at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, raising questions over the state of his mind going into this week with a divorce reportedly imminent.
Left-hander Mickelson fared even worse on Sunday, battling to a closing 78 when a strong finish would have helped him claim the world number one ranking for the first time.
Ninety-seven of the world's top 100 players have assembled at Whistling Straits this week and you can bet that at least a handful will go on to deliver their 'A' games in pursuit of the season's last shot at major glory.
The 7,507-yard venue has once before staged the PGA Championship, in 2004 when Vijay Singh emerged triumphant after a three-way playoff on the longest course to stage a major.
Although a few yards shorter this year, the par-72 layout modeled on an Irish seaside links will once again provide a stiff test with its soaring sand dunes, fast-running fescue fairways and deep pot bunkers.
Of all the majors in recent times, the PGA attracts the strongest field and yet it has often been the most likely to throw up a surprise winner.
Whoever ends up lifting the prized Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday will have coped best with one of golf's toughest challenges.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)