There is always more tension than normal on the eve of a golf major, but this PGA Championship has more high-anxiety subplots than Whistling Straits has bunkers.
For starters, it's the Last Chance Saloon for players who want to drink the sweet champagne of a major title in 2004. While the PGA may not have the cachet of its three big brothers, the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, it's a career-making major just the same.
But a variety of outside factors have converged here on the shores of Lake Michigan in Haven, Wis., to turn up the competitive heat a few degrees.
There is, for example, the matter of Ryder Cup selection which, for the Americans hoping to play for their country next month in Detroit, will be settled this weekend.
The top seven players are solid, but once you get past Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry, David Toms and Chad Campbell, there is not much room for error among the next 10 or 12 players competing for the last five positions on the team.
Because Ryder Cup points are weighted more heavily in majors, somebody like Charles Howell or John Daly could vault past a dozen people by winning this weekend, knocking players such as Fred Funk, Steve Flesch or Jay Haas right out of the picture.
It's also a time for somebody, probably a veteran such as Scott Verplank or Chris DiMarco, to impress team captain Hal Sutton enough to make him a captain's pick.
"That's all I've been thinking about all year," said Funk, who sits in eighth place but needs a strong showing to solidify his spot. "I have no idea what Hal is thinking but I don't want to have to be a captain's pick. I want to control my own destiny by getting enough points so it doesn't matter what anybody else does."
For the giants of the game -- Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Mickelson -- there is also more than usual at stake this weekend.
All season long, Els and Singh have been nipping at Woods' heels as he attempts to maintain his status as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Woods has held that status since August 1999. This weekend, it's possible for Els or Singh to get past Woods with a victory or a second-place finish, providing Woods doesn't finish in the top 10.
Woods' 331-week reign at the top of the complex ranking system matches that of Greg Norman, who held the title through most of the 1990s. How Woods plays this week could determine if he can extend that record.
Woods has another streak on the line: His five consecutive player-of-the-year awards that is seriously threatened by Mickelson or Singh. The PGA Championship has been traditionally a crucial turning point in the player-of-the-year fortunes. It's a final opportunity to win one of the four jewels that usually adorn the crown of the best player of the year.
Right now, Mickelson has the best credentials, including a Masters title. A PGA Championship would wrap it all up in a tight little package.
Woods is "struggling" through his worst season since 1998 when he spent an entire year working on swing changes that led to his dominance from 1999 through 2001. He has won only one tournament in 2004, the Accenture Match Play, while collecting $3,589,112 US in purse money.
While most tour players would consider it one of their best years, Woods is not most players.
"I haven't been hitting the ball quite as close to the flags, not making as many putts," said Woods, who has been tinkering with technical aspects of his swing. "This is very similar to that period I went through in 1998. It feels similar. I can feel things starting to come together and it's very exciting."
This weekend, in the sand dunes of Whistling Straits, could provide a turning point. It's just that nobody really knows which fork in the road Woods and his pursuers will take.