By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - The PGA Championship has often been the most unpredictable of all four majors but this week, at Oak Hill Country Club, Tiger Woods will start out as a heavy favorite after coasting to his 79th PGA Tour victory on Sunday.
Though the American world number one has not claimed a major title since his remarkable playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, his runaway triumph at Firestone Country Club on Sunday suggested that every component of his game is in top order.
Granted, Woods was competing at one of his favorite venues but, by firing a brilliant nine-under-par 61 on Friday, he distanced himself from an elite field before romping home by seven shots to win the event for a record eighth time.
It was his fifth PGA Tour victory of the year and the 10th time he has piled up as many wins in a single season.
"Any time you can go into a major tournament, or any tournament, with a win under your belt it's nice," Woods told reporters at Firestone. "It validates what you're working on and you have some nice momentum going in there."
While Woods was a dominant figure at Firestone, with the quality of his iron play particularly impressive, he will once again come under the spotlight after failing to add to his career tally of 14 majors over the past five years.
He has often played his way into contention over the first two rounds only for his game to fade over the weekend with his driving and putting the main contributors.
Has his title drought in the majors sharpened his appetite to win more as he strives to get closer to the record 18 piled up by his childhood idol Jack Nicklaus?
"No, it's the same," said Woods, a four-times winner of the PGA Championship. "Those are the events that we try and peak for and try and win.
"There's four of them a year and each and every major, I always want them. I've been successful 14 times and hopefully (Oak Hill) will be 15."
Woods has been installed as the tournament favorite at 7-2 by British bookmakers William Hill.
However, unpredictability has been the predominant theme going into all the majors in recent years and this week's PGA Championship par-70 East Course at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, is no exception.
Eighteen different players have combined to win the last 20 majors and that trend could continue with players such as Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood and Americans Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker aiming for their first grand-slam crowns.
"In general, golfers and fields are getting closer," said former world number one Donald who has recorded eight top-10s in the majors, including a tie for third at the 2006 PGA Championship.
"It's becoming tougher to win these days. There's a lot of great talent out there and technology has probably brought golfers a little bit closer. It's all about finding that right time when it (winning a major) happens."
Oak Hill's heavily tree-lined East Course, a par-70 layout measuring 7,163 yards off the back tees, will be staging its third PGA championship and the players are preparing for a stiff challenge.
"The rough is extremely long and thick, as long and thick of rough as I've seen in a long time," said British Open champion Phil Mickelson who played a practice round at Oak Hill a week ago.
"It's really pristine but it's difficult, as you can imagine, like any major championship. Like a U.S. Open, it will have a premium on getting the ball in play off the tee and so forth."
Northern Irish world number three Rory McIlroy, who romped to victory in last year's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by a record eight shots, liked the look of Oak Hill when he played there in June.
"When I think of the PGA Championship, I think of courses like this," McIlroy said. "This course is timeless. It's not only long but it's hard to drive the ball well.
"You've got to shape a lot of shots at Oak Hill. The par-threes are strong holes, and you're going to have to hit some good iron shots. You've got some (birdie) chances out there but then again you've got a tough finish."
Of all the majors in recent times, the PGA attracts the strongest field - this week 99 of the world's top 100 are scheduled to compete - and yet it has often been the most likely to throw up a surprise winner.
The championship was won in consecutive years from 2002 by unheralded Americans Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel, underlining that any player is capable of victory.
Keegan Bradley, in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, clinched the 2011 title in a playoff with fellow American Jason Dufner after starting the week ranked 108th in the world, and both players are likely to contend again this week.
Also likely to flourish are Masters champion Adam Scott, fellow Australia Jason Day, U.S. Open winner Justin Rose of England, Americans Bubba Watson, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan, and South African Charl Schwartzel.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Clare Fallon)