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For club pros, PGA Championship is the thrill of a lifetime - with or without a Tiger to chase

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Brian Norman can be excused for not getting all worked up over whether Tiger Woods plays in the PGA Championship.

Norman qualified for his first major at age 32.

He's going to have the time of his life, with or without Woods.

"Hitting balls next to some of the best players in the world is awesome," said Norman, one of 20 club professionals who earned a spot in the final major of the year.

Norman was especially giddy Monday after finishing up a practice round at Valhalla Golf Club. This is a homecoming for the native of Henderson, Kentucky, and he actually attended the last PGA Championship at this course back in 2000, when Woods beat Bob May in a playoff for the third in what would become four straight major championships.

"It was an incredible atmosphere," Norman recalled.

When Woods won the Masters the following April, they called it the Tiger Slam.

This time around, it's not even known if there will be a Tiger in the field.

About four months removed from back surgery, Woods reinjured himself last weekend after playing a shot off an awkward lie at the Bridgestone Invitational.

His caddie, Joe LaCava, went through his normal Monday routine, walking the entire golf course and jotting notes in his yardage book.

But there was no sign of Woods. Even if he does turn up, it seems unlikely he would be able to make any sort of serious run at that long-delayed 15th major title, considering he's barely played at all this year — and not very well when he does.

"I'm optimistic," LaCava said after he finished charting the layout about 20 miles east of downtown Louisville. "I'm hoping he plays. So I'm just doing whatever work I would normally do."

Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, said Monday was too early for doctors to decide whether Woods could or even should try to play this week. The PGA of America said that Woods would not have his previously scheduled news conference Tuesday morning, but provided no other details.

"Obviously, I feel bad for him," Rory McIlroy, the world's top-ranked player, told the BBC. "The game of golf really needs Tiger. He's had a few withdrawals the past couple of years. I think the first thing is just to get fit and 100 per cent healthy, even if that means taking the year off and coming back next year ready to play golf."

Woods had back surgery March 31 to alleviate the pain from a pinched nerve. Since returning, he failed to make the cut in his first tournament, had his worst 72-hole finish in a major at the British Open, and didn't even make it to the finish at Firestone. He was last seen riding off the course in a cart, struggling to even remove his shoes before LaCava drove him to the airport for a flight back to Florida to be evaluated.

If Woods doesn't play the PGA Championship, his season would be over.

Woods has to win the final major of the year to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. He would also need to win to clinch a spot on the Ryder Cup team. And by the sound of U.S. captain Tom Watson, he would have to play at Valhalla to even merit consideration as a wild-card selection.

"Tiger would be a great addition to our team," Watson told SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio. "I've said all along, I would pick Tiger Woods if he's healthy and playing well. This doesn't bode well right now. I just hope that maybe it's just an isolated problem that he can turn around and possibly play this week at the PGA."

Valhalla has changed since 2000, with Jack Nicklaus making various tweaks, especially around the green. The par is now 71 with the second hole changed to a par 4.

Otherwise, it looked to be in immaculate conditions on the first day of practice.

Phil Mickelson, coming off a 62 in the final round at Firestone, played nine holes. The practice range and chipping area were crowded with players. McIlroy already was back at work, having established himself as the overwhelming favourite coming off his wire-to-wire win at the British Open and rallying from three shots behind to win at Firestone.

Norman, a club pro in Texas, would be happy just making the cut.

No matter who's in the field.

"It's a great opportunity," he said. "I feel honoured to be here."

___

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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