The PGA is Moving to May, But is that Enough?

By Tony Dear

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Last week at the PGA Championship, the issue of identity was front and center. LINKS Magazine’s Jim Frank argued in the Friday newsletter that the event deserves our attention and its status as one of the game’s four biggest events. Though certainly lowest on the totem pole, Frank said the quality of its field and venues, and its impressive list of champions warranted more respect.

All true certainly, but what about its identity? What does the PGA Championship mean to you, and what images immediately come to mind when you think of it? Picture the Masters and you see the delightful 12th hole over the creek, pimento cheese sandwiches, and a beaming champion being helped into a green jacket during an awkwardly executed made-for-TV presentation. You know to expect a pulsating Sunday afternoon’s play, and your heartbeat quickens at the mere thought of it.

The Open Championship conjures pictures of an old, silver, wine jug and weatherproof-clad players battling wind, rain, and pot bunkers. The U.S. Open has usually been all about par, rough, and Father’s Day.

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But what about the PGA? Yes, there’s that enormous trophy and 20 club pros in the field. But what else? Rough that’s not quite as punishing as the U.S. Open’s, and fairways that aren’t quite as narrow? Greens that are slightly less firm and quick than Augusta National’s (Quail Hollow’s Champion Bermuda surfaces excepted), and little of the intrigue or tradition? Yes, a long history going all the way back to 1916, but still 56 years short of the Open Championship?

Judging by Sunday’s TV viewing figures, which were the lowest for the tournament since 2008, even the prospect of a tight leaderboard with a handful of the game’s finest young players—Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler—in contention couldn’t ignite much excitement outside of core golfers and Charlotte residents.

None of this takes anything away from Thomas’s first major victory, of course, and the excellent two-under 34 he shot on Sunday’s back nine to seal the deal. But for many—true devotees and more casual drop-ins—this year’s PGA Championship, played at a regular PGA Tour stop, was only slightly more stimulating than… a regular PGA Tour stop.

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If there’s a U.S. major really in need of an identity, it’s the PGA Championship. But it used to have one.

Most know that until 1958, it was a matchplay event. The last matchplay winner was Lionel Hebert who beat Dow Finsterwald 2&1 in the final at Miami Valley Golf Club in Dayton, Ohio. The five winners before that were Jack Burke Jr., Doug Ford, Chick Harbert, Walter Burkemo, and Jim Turnesa.

Even PGA officials probably had a hard time getting excited about some of the 1950s finals—Turnesa vs. Harbert at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville, Ky.; Walter Burkemo vs. Felice Torza at Birmingham Country Club in Birmingham, Mich.—you get the idea.

All due respect to those players and courses, but we’re guessing a Snead/Hogan final at Pebble Beach or Oakmont would probably have aroused greater anticipation, received more coverage, endured far longer in people’s memories, and maybe have convinced the PGA of America to stick with matchplay.

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Imagine a Rory McIlroy/Jordan Spieth final at Merion; Justin Thomas against Brooks Koepka at Winged Foot, or a Dustin Johnson/Rickie Fowler Championship Match at Riviera. Better still (from a world perspective, at least), imagine those matchups at Royal Melbourne, Portmarnock, Royal Toronto, or Hirono.

Four years ago, long before talk of the tournament’s calendar move to May first surfaced, the PGA of America announced it was looking into the possibility of holding its flagship event outside the U.S., once or twice every decade. The organization’s CEO, Pete Bevacqua, said it had to think outside the box and hinted it would be unforgivable if they didn’t at least consider the move. He added there was no timetable for a decision.

Australian Mike Clayton, the former tour professional turned course architect, firmly believes that both the tournament and the game in general would benefit from its moving outside of America. “For a start, if you were deciding now which events should be majors, there’s no way three of the four would be in the U.S.,” he says. “The world of golf loves the Masters and the two Opens, but the PGA garners no affection, relatively. Maybe it does in the U.S., but nowhere else. And that’s why it’s always the spare wheel.”

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Clayton adds the PGA of America are “always banging on about growing the game” and says taking the PGA Championship to other countries would be a great way of helping it grow globally. “Sometimes I think they forget there are club pros all over the world,” he says. “And the PGA Tour is very international these days. What a great way to acknowledge the not-insignificant contribution of ‘foreign’ pros to the game.”

If money were a sticking point for the PGA of America, Clayton knows they need have no worries going to Australia. “The Victorian Government has paid the PGA Tour $28m (Aus) for the 2019 Presidents Cup,” he says. “So they definitely have the money to pay for it.”

Assuming the notion of going international is still on the table, it’s doubtful anything would be announced for quite a while. Give the PGA time to adapt to its new date on the calendar first. And don’t expect conversation regarding a return to matchplay to start up within the foreseeable future either. Bevacqua is too intelligent to never say never, but even he might draw the line there.

But what if, by 2030, the PGA Championship has not only changed its dates, but has reverted to matchplay, and is being played in Ireland, Japan, or Australia?

Now that’s identifiable.

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