In Praise of the PGA Championship

By James A. Frank 

Photo credit: Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire

 

A few years ago, Sports Illustrated asked 50 PGA Tour players which major they most wanted to win. The Masters took half the votes, the British and US Opens about 25% each. And the PGA Championship? 2%.

Pity the poor PGA. It’s the Ringo Starr of major championships: Definitely one of the Fab Four, but not cute enough to be anyone’s favorite.

The PGA Championship deserves more respect. It doesn’t have to be your favorite, but there’s no doubt it’s equal to the others. (And say what you want about Ringo, he’s a helluva drummer!)

With this week’s announcement that the championship will be moving from hot and humid August to more temperate May as of 2019, the PGA has addressed one of its marquee event’s biggest drawbacks. But is that enough to raise its stature in the eyes of the public?

Whenever there’s a list, people are going to rank the entries. Regarding the majors, the Open Championship has history, foreign intrigue, and an international field; the U.S. Open is our national championship and, supposedly, the toughest test; the Masters has the myth of Bobby Jones, a single venue (the course most golfers would love most to play—but never will), and the benefit of coming first just as much of the country is just putting away their winter coats.

Then there’s the PGA, which has been rapped for its sometimes less than inspired course choices, its agronomic imitation of the U.S. Open, its field (club pros compete in it!), along with its now-remedied middle-of-summer date. No wonder it’s remembered—if at all—as “the fourth major.”

But look more closely at its attributes and you might change your mind.

The Field.

According to golf’s official world rankings, the PGA has the strongest field of any major, usually attracting more than 95 of the top 100 players, and is almost as international as the Open Championship. The PGA also has done a great job with special invitations over the years: Ernie Els was invited to play in the early 1990s before he’d won almost anything on the big stage; same with Ryo Ishikawa more recently.

Okay, but what about those club pros? Before you think the PGA of America just hands out “get into our major free” cards to its members, know that the 20 club pros in the field had to play their way in. The PGA Professional Championship is held each June at some pretty good tracks and features good players, tough conditions, and close finishes. This year’s winner, Omar Uresti, used to play on the tour but still needed a two-hole playoff to top Dave McNabb.

Furthermore, it’s only 20 guys out of 156, and harkens back to a time when all the great players—Hagen, Hogan, Nelson, Snead, etc.—were club pros, too.

And why are 20 club pros any less worthy than the amateurs who are invited to the Masters or the qualifiers who get into the Opens?

Photo credit: Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire

The Winners.

It’s a good list: Nicklaus, Nelson, Snead, Hogan, and more recently Woods (four times), Mickelson, McIlroy, Day. Yes, there’s the occasional Shaun Micheel and Wayne Grady, but the U.S. Open has coughed up Sam Parks, Jack Fleck, and Orville Moody, the Open Championship Todd Hamilton and Ben Curtis, even the Masters has had its Charles Coodys and Danny Willetts.

I think one reason the PGA suffers is for the players who did NOT win it, notably Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. But the fact that these two greats were unable to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy says a lot about those who did.

Great Finishes.

Y.E. Yang chipped in for an eagle then hit a hybrid to 10 feet on the final hole to beat Tiger at Hazeltine in 2009. Shaun Micheel might have done nothing since, but his 7-iron to inches on the 18th hole at Oak Hill in ’03 remains unforgettable. Tiger had to outlast Bob May (who?) over three playoff holes at Valhalla in 2000. And that’s just this century.

The Venues.

Until the 1960s, the case could be made that the PGA didn’t go to the best courses. While the U.S. Open always had Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Merion, Pebble Beach, and so on, the PGA often went to good, but not great, tracks like Keller and Cedar Crest, Pomonok and Norwood Hills, Miami Valley and Big Spring.

But over the last 50 years it’s been a steady diet of Firestone, Oakland Hills, Inverness, Medinah, Hazeltine, and other serious, U.S. Open-style layouts. What about the occasional Quail Hollow (this year’s site), Crooked Stick, and Sahalee?

“We pride ourselves that we play on more different courses than any other major,” says Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer. “Part of our strategy has been to include newer venues that 100 years down the road will be seen as traditional venues. We mix Baltusrol and Oak Hill with Whistling Straits and Valhalla, which makes us different and unique.”

I asked Haigh, who is responsible for the course set-up, if he thought his courses play like “U.S. Open lite.” “No. We set up courses like a PGA Championship, with the goal that players will like the challenges we bring out. Each course is different, but if you can make it so the players can hit and advance the ball, as opposed to just wedging out, that shows greater skill and the players enjoy that more.”

And Haigh raised another point of difference. “We don’t have any preset notions of what the winning score will be. It’s more important that the course plays well and is set up in a fair and exciting manner.”

Baltusrol (Lower)

August.

Give the PGA credit for fixing the one complaint that was fixable. For years, the PGA Championship was a sweat-fest for players and spectators, and tough on the courses, as well, especially those with cool-season grasses. (They expect Quail Hollow, which has warm-season grass, to be “great.”)

But Haigh points out that uncomfortable weather can make things interesting, saying “the stamina and patience required of the players” is a factor people rarely talk about. And it was okay when players had to don rain gear and wool hats in the UK. Maybe the weather shouldn’t have been the bugaboo it was made out to be.

All that will now change. The PGA will no longer go last. The question is, will it still be last in our hearts? We’ll see.

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What do you think about the PGA Championship? Does the date change your opinion about the event? Let us know in the comments below!

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