Fans love the Masters because of the mystique and galore of Augusta National. It’s the only major played at the same course every year and it usually kicks off the major season.
Fans love the U.S. Open because of the challenge it brings, the hard fast greens and the fight to break par every year. We see the best players in the world look like us, making bogeys and doubles, and with it being at Winged Foot this year, that will be magnified.
Fans love the The Open Championship because of the setting. It is played on a seaside links course on the shores of Great Britain where it can be 50 degrees and played in 40mph winds. It’s a different type of golf than any other we see during the year.
Some fans even love the Players Championship, the so-called “5th major”, which carries its identity with the island green at 17 every year.
And then there’s the PGA Championship which has, well, ummmm….I don’t know. I mean, it’s a major championship.
When trying to figure what the PGA Championship lacks compared to the other three, it really comes down to the fact that simple doesn’t have “an identity.”
The PGA Championship to some in the game is “the lost major”. In the years where Tiger Woods was out of action (2008, 2011, 2016-17), it was the lowest rated watched major of all four. Woods’ presence changes things, of course. If he were in contention in the St. Jude Invitational it would outdraw a major with him out of contention.
The PGA is played on some great courses, including this year at Harding Park, but it has the same feel of every other tournament. Scores are usually pretty low, it’s played on courses that the USGA did away with and the fields are the same as any other big non-major tournament, such as the WGC or the Players. It just doesn’t scream excitement.
Last year, the PGA Tour recognized this and decided to move up the PGA Championship to May. While they never admitted it was to get it away from football season and give it more exposure, most realize that was the main reason.
The interesting part is the PGA Championship has actually had some of the most exciting finishes of any major in recent memory, and its list of champions are quite impressive. Last year, Brooks Koepka held off Dustin Johnson in a clash of the titans. In 2018, we had a shootout of Koepka, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, with Koepka holding off Tiger for his second major of the year. In 2015, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth were dueling it out to the very end. The 2014 PGA may have topped them all with a shootout between eventual winner Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson which finished in darkness. It’s also the only tournament in history where Tiger relinquished a 54-hole lead and lost in a thrilling finish with Y.E. Yang in 2009.
This year, the PGA Championship has a different feel to it because of the adjusted schedule. It’s kicking off the major season and the enthusiasm leading up to it is perhaps higher than it ever has been before. Additionally, it’s moved to ESPN for the opening rounds getting it more marketing. There are also more storylines attached to it as Koepka is going for three in a row and Tiger is trying to move within two majors of Jack Nicklaus and pass Sam Snead for most PGA Tour wins. Jordan Spieth also has the opportunity to win the career grand slam.
But this year aside, it’s been lost in the shuffle.
So what can the PGA do to spice up its major? Well, I think the first step has already been taken. Moving it to May was a very smart move, although the coronavirus has obviously changed the dynamic for this season. Everything’s all over the place. But the bottom line is August is not a great month for golf traditionally. Football preseason has started, families are on vacation, and after the Open Championship, everyone’s seen enough golf for the year. They are worn out from it. The move of the Players back to March opens up May as a great month to hold a major title. We now have a major four straight months of major golf for the first time in over 50 years.
A second move could be to explore some new and unique courses. They play the PGA on some outstanding layouts, but they’re venues we’ve seen played on before in the U.S. Open. It’s almost as if they’re taking the USGA’s cast-offs, including Bethpage last year which the USGA has decided not to return to. I like that they’re going to Harding Park and Kiawah Island in this year and next, courses that really haven’t see any air time, not to mention they are spectacular courses. Let’s keep that trend going.
Now it’s kind of late to implement this since the PGA is set through 2030 and includes some new places in the mix like Trump National and Aronimink, but it is going with Oak Hill and Valhalla for the millionth time. Let’s see Bandon Dunes. Let’s see Shadow Creek. Let’s see Spyglass Hill which no one sees during the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Let’s see some unique places that offer up more strategic golf. I would love to see Sand Hills in Nebraska get a look, although that would never happen because it’s in the middle of nowhere. It would be like “Tin Cup” and guys staying in Winnebagos.
One idea that I’ve heard floated is the idea of a stroke play/match play type championship, similar to the US Amateur, with the top-50 and exemptions allowed in the field. After two days, the top-16 would compete in a match play tournament. The PGA actually inaugurated as a match play format in 1916 but changed its format in 1959. The downside of this is the presumption of “luck” in match play and concern there could be a “boring” final which would garner no interest. However, the WGC-Match Play, comprised of the top-64 in the world, has carried with it a very impressive championship slate year-in and year-out since 2000.
I’ve also heard the idea of the stableford scoring system which they used at The Barracuda Championship last week and used to use in The International back in the day, but I’m not in favor of that.
Whatever the secret is, it would be a great story to see all four majors have something unique about them, some identity that gives all four of them their flavor and pop. Right now three of them have it.
The PGA, of course, may like what it has. It brings the strongest field of any major and its finishes always keep you on the edge of your seat. And for them, that may be just fine.