By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KIAWAH ISLAND, South Carolina (Reuters) - Predicting the winner at all the majors in recent years has been a near-impossible task and this week's PGA Championship on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort is no exception.
Sixteen different players have claimed the last 16 major titles, 12 of them first-time winners, and that trend could continue as players such as British world number one Luke Donald and Lee Westwood aim for their first grand slam crowns.
"Right now the fields are very deep," Englishman Donald told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round at a rain-softened Kiawah Island. "A lot of guys have opportunities to win.
"There isn't that one guy really distancing himself from the rest. I guess the longer the streak goes, the more encouragement it gives to those guys who haven't yet won a major, like myself.
"But I'm not sure if it changes anything for me. I'm not sure if it gives me too much more encouragement. I continue to focus on what I can do and hopefully give myself a chance on Sunday."
The dominant era of 14-times major winner Tiger Woods ended four years ago, his aura of invincibility swiftly disappearing as he battled injuries and tried to rebuild his golf swing and private life following the breakup of his marriage.
Though Woods has produced good form in fits and starts this year, winning a season-high three times on the PGA Tour, he has always judged the true success of his golfing campaigns by the number of majors won.
He was in contention going into the weekend at the last two majors before fading, finishing joint 21st at the U.S. Open and tying for third at the British Open.
"I'm pleased at the way I was able to play at certain parts of it and at certain times, and obviously disappointed that I did not win," said world number two Woods whose most recent major victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open.
"I've played in three major championships this year, and I didn't win any of them. Things have progressed, but still, not winning a major championship doesn't feel very good."
While Woods seeks a 15th major crown on the wind-swept Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, Northern Irishman McIlroy will be seeking a second to add to his 2011 U.S. Open title.
"I'm disappointed that I have not contended since," said world number three McIlroy, referring to his eight-shot victory at last year's U.S. Open. "That's been the disappointing thing. I haven't given myself even a chance.
"It would be great just to give myself a chance this week, get into contention and just feel that buzz again of getting into contention in a major and remembering how it feels."
McIlroy and company will have to contend with a mixed bag of weather at Kiawah Island where rain, thunderstorms, lightning and gusts up to 30 mph have been forecast for the year's final major.
"The course is getting a lot more wet now and a lot more soft," South African veteran Ernie Els, who won his fourth major title at last month's British Open, said after a heavy deluge on Wednesday.
The par-72 Ocean Course measures 7,676 yards off the back tees, making it the longest layout ever to stage a major championship
"Everybody's got a chance in the field, but it definitely helps the super long bombers - Bubba (Watson), Dustin (Johnson), Tiger - the real long guys that can fly it 320 (yards)," Els added.
"Those guys can reach all four par-fives now where I can hit it 300, but I can't fly it 320, so I'm probably going to lay up on all of the par-fives. Doesn't take me out of the tournament but it definitely gives those bombers a great advantage."
Of all the majors in recent times, the PGA attracts the strongest field - this week 102 of the world's top 103 players will be in action - 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 last year's title in a playoff with fellow American Jason Dufner after starting the week ranked 108th in the world.
Other likely contenders at Kiawah Island are Masters champion Bubba Watson, British duo Westwood and Justin Rose, Americans Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan and Dufner, and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Whoever ends up lifting the prized Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday will have coped best with one of golf's toughest challenges.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)
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