Mark O'Meara never thought he would hear his name mentioned in the same sentence with Ben Hogan, nor does he find it appropriate even now.

Hogan was the consummate perfectionist who practiced alone and was rarely satisfied, a survivor who emerged as the most feared competitor of his time - four-time U.S. Open champion, winner of nine major championships.In 1953, Hogan set a standard that no one has been able to meet by winning three major championships in one year.

Since then, six players in nine seasons have come to the PGA Cham-pionship with a chance to equal him. The closest anyone came was Tom Watson in 1977, when he finished four strokes back in a tie for sixth.

The next candidate is an unlikely one.

O'Meara is a career grinder who played in 56 majors as a pro before finally winning at the Masters this year. At age 41, he is gray around the edges and one of the most congenial players, a big brother to Tiger Woods.

He is playing the best golf of his life, not because he has mastered the game, but because he refuses to let it master him.

"Because I put too much pressure on myself, I didn't perform as well," O'Meara said. "I backed off and said, `Listen, this is an important tournament, but let's keep everything in check. It's not the end of the world.' When I did that, I took a little pressure off myself and started to perform better."

He comes to Sahalee Country Club having won the Masters and the British Open, not wanting his incredible season to end, but not believing he is any different than before.

"I don't classify myself as a great player," O'Meara said. "Great players are Jack Nicklaus, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan . . . you can go on down the list. Players who have won a lot of major championships, have been incredible ambassadors to the game.

"I consider myself a consistent player, a player that tries to do the best I can at all times. Yet I try to treat my fellow competitors with the utmost respect. Maybe because of that, good things happen."

Good things?

By winning the British Open, O'Meara became the oldest player to win two majors in one year. Since 1980, only four others have won two majors in a season - Nick Price in 1994, Nick Faldo in 1990, Tom Watson in 1982 and Nicklaus in 1980.

All of them were regarded the best in the world. And yet, when O'Meara arrived at The Olympic Club for the U.S. Open, no one broached the subject of a grand slam, which was fine with him.

"I don't live for the limelight," he said.

But don't be deceived. O'Meara may be kind, but he is a killer inside the ropes. He routinely takes cash from Woods in casual rounds, despite losing about 40 yards to him off the tee.

Put him near the lead of a tournament, and he's usually there at the end.

"Winning one major is an honor," O'Meara said. "Winning two is a great thrill. And now, to have the opportunity to win a third, it means a lot. I'm just hoping to give myself a chance to win on Sunday."

That in itself would be an accomplishment.

The PGA Championship may be the less heralded of the four majors, but it always has the strongest field - and this will be the strongest ever.

Going into the week, 74 of the top 75 players in the world rankings, and 92 of the top 100 were entered. The big exception was Greg Norman, out until November with a shoulder injury.

O'Meara isn't quite sure what to expect from Sahalee, a 29-year-old course carved from a forest of Douglas fir trees outside Seattle.

Sahalee measures 6,906 yards and plays as a par 70 - two par 5s have been converted to par 4s, including the 475-yard closing hole. The rough will be thick and punishing, as usual, but the real trouble lies among the 100-foot trees that line just about every fairway.

Paul Runyan, a two-time PGA champion and the first head pro at Sahalee, once described each hole as "playing down a cathedral aisle."

Don't be surprised if the player holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday has never won a major championship before - nine of the past 10 champions won their first major at the PGA.

That could bode well for players like David Duval, a five-time winner on tour since October who has played well in all the majors this year, or for Jim Furyk, whose straight driving and smooth putting are a perfect combination for Sahalee.

And a year after 20-something stars like Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard won three of the four majors, they haven't done anything this year.