That the PGA Championship is one of the undisputed four majors in golf is not in question. But whether it ranks higher than 4th is an age-old question and to answer this question you need to examine the ways in which the “majors” became majors. The first (and best) way is for major status to simply be beyond dispute. You know a major when you see one and in the great Bobby Jones’ time the majors were obvious. There were four tournaments of such prestige that they lent themselves to the term “Grand Slam” when Jones won them all in the same year: the US and British Opens (see http://blog.ggog.com/?p=2011 for those now yelling at me for calling it the British Open), and the US and British Amateurs. Jones then started the Augusta National Invitational Tournament which quickly became The Masters and it was only a decade or two at most before it was at least the equal to the two Opens in prestige. Nobody had to bestow major status on the event, it was simply understood.
Just as you know a major when you see one, you know what’s not a major when you see that as well. Along these lines, the two Amateurs have so substantially diminished over the years in terms of the amount of golfing immortality bestowed by the sporting public on to the winners that those “Muirfield 20th” irons that Macgregor issued to commemorate Jack Nicklaus’ “20th” major championship (the 1986 Masters), now really celebrate his 18th major. Somewhere along the way, 18 became Nicklaus’ number, not 20 (ironically Tiger Woods would be one closer to Nicklaus if US Amateurs still counted). The reality is that even by the 1960s winning a US or British Amateur was not close to the same level as winning a Masters, US Open, or British Open and they had lost “true” major championship status.
The Ladies’ and Seniors’ tours have tried to simply deem tournaments as major championships but the question of whether they can stand the test of time is a valid one in a golf world that sees more majors on those tours (5 each) than on the Mens’ Tour. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t true major championships on the other tours, in fact I’m quite sure that there are. I would just argue that there aren’t 5 majors. Whether the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, European Tour, Champions Tour, etc., a tour can’t just bestow true major status on its own event, such as The Tradition where the only real Tradition these days is not knowing the event has even been played, yet alone where it was played and who won it.
Which brings me back to the PGA Championship, the one tournament that DID have major championship status bestowed on it and has thus far been able to keep it. In 1960 golf really only had those three major championships. But since 1919 the PGA of America had somewhat quietly held their own annual championship and they did so on an array of courses. “Array” in this case meaning that occasionally it visited venues of the highest quality such as Oakmont in 1922 and 1951, while more often being held at quite forgettable courses (just scroll through the list). The PGA was a couple of decades behind the US Open in starting and though it was the championship of the Professional Golfers Association it was not the Championship of the United States and thus did not command the same attention. It was a different event, a hodge-podge even: match-play for the first few decades obviously before changing to stroke play but also played over a huge variety of dates. Sometimes in May, sometimes in July, sometimes bumping right up against the British Open on the schedule (such as when Jack Nicklaus won in 1963), one time in February of all months (thank you Jack for saving the event from such a decision, by winning that one as well), then into early August, before finally settling on the hot-and-muggy dog days of August’s second week, a week where enthusiasm for the tour and for major championships is waning.
Was it a major championship all this time? How could it have been, when someone like Ben Hogan couldn’t even enter it (and therefore go for the “modern grand slam” before it was even invented) in 1953 after having won the Masters, US Open, and British Open that year? The dates overlapped. Would the US Open in tennis be a major if the first weekend of the tournament overlapped with the Wimbledon semifinals and final? But along came Arnold Palmer in 1960, winning the Masters and the US Open, and though I’m not certain if he had yet shaken Mark McCormick’s hand, someone had the brilliant PR idea to say Palmer was halfway to completing the Grand Slam just like Jones. But Palmer needed 4 majors for the Slam and he couldn’t play in the Amateurs, so what else was out there besides the British Open at St. Andrews?
Hence this is the pinpoint for when the PGA became a major championship and was not bestowed by the PGA Tour, it was bestowed either by Palmer himself or at least by his quest to win 4 “majors” in the same year. Why did Palmer choose the PGA over the Western Open, to give one example of a “could-have-been” major? The Western dates back to 1899, nearly two decades earlier than the PGA, was played on a similar array of courses as the PGA (rotated each year), with a top-notch lineup of champions in its first 60-odd years.
Perhaps it was simply the Western Open’s position on the calendar, had it already been held by the time Palmer made his famous charge at Cherry Hills in 1960? Was it held right after the US Open? Did the King enter the Western Open with the “Grand Slam” in mind, but without announcing it to the world, only not to win? Meaning it was a major in his mind until he DIDN’T win it, and he needed another tournament to keep the Grand Slam alive? Meaning if he would have won it, he would have announced that there was just “one more to go–the Open at St. Andrews!” Would anyone put that line of thinking past him? Would it have been wrong in any way had he did? Ironically, Palmer won the Western Open in 1961 and again in 1963 while the PGA always escaped him.
But however it came about, it was that act of “bestowing” major championship status, unlike the other three majors which just “were”, which has kept the PGA a clear 4th in the pecking order behind first three on the calendar. It can even legitimately be asked how the PGA has survived as a major to this day? It can be argued that every-other-year it’s almost as much a promotional arm of golf’s most sacred (cash) cow, the Ryder Cup, as it is a stand-alone event. What about the view of the golfing world outside of the United States? Before Y.E. Yang’s victory over Tiger Woods at Hazeltine in 2009, did the youth of southeast Asia for example really dream of winning the “US” PGA? Do they dream of winning it even after Yang’s win? Do they even know which “PGA” is the most prestigious? There’s the “Australian” PGA, the “Volvo” PGA, there’s even a Canadian PGA and wouldn’t you know this was Palmer’s last hurrah against the youth, winning that version of the PGA at age 50!
One would think that a tournament elsewhere around the world would have made a run at “major” status by now, considering the global nature of the game and that the USA hosts 3 of the 4. But the PGA has not really been challenged for its “major slot”. What’s been saving it from the competition? The Australian Open never made a run though I believe it could have, maybe held on what is Thanksgiving weekend in the USA, a weekend that proved it could deliver a huge golf audience when the Skins Game was at its peak. It might be a better time for a major than mid-August when the heat is oh-so…hot. The lineup of Australian Open host venues is magnificent and stacks up well with the US and British versions. The Canadian Open seemingly could have made a run as well had they the inclination to rotate it around the country to the truly great venues. And for years the TPC (oops, “The Players”) clearly had more buzz than the PGA when it was being contested in late March. But though there was (and still is a bit) some talk about the Players being a “5th” major, there’s virtually no talk of it being the 4th.
Or, perhaps, all of the above is all really over-thinking this subject and the answer to why the PGA is a major and how it holds onto that status comes down to one simple thing—The Wanamaker Trophy. Oh, what a trophy. Golf’s Stanley Cup. The one you could float in the pool with. The one you could parade around the stadium with. The one you want to grab with two hands, feel the weight, and say wow this one is MINE! With great respect as well to the stately Claret Jug–old-world, historic, iconic, charming and quaint (you could hardly imagine something looking better on a winner’s mantle)– the Claret Jug is no Wanamaker Trophy. The US Open trophy is simplistic, stylish and superb but it’s still just a Wanamaker-wannabe. The Wanamaker is SUBSTANTIAL and it looks oh-so-great standing watch each year on the first tee as the players embark on their journey.
Yes, the more I think about it, it is clearly all about the trophy when it comes to the PGA. No piece of fine Waterford Crystal could possibly match it. No color jacket beyond “Augusta green” could replace it. No “modern lines” could achieve its timelessness. Few great careers are complete without putting two hands on it. Maybe not even Arnold Palmer’s. It may be somewhat subliminal, but whomever wins this week at Oak Hill may be getting the one trophy he has dreamed about most, whether he realizes it or not. And though I’m certain that someday a tournament will rise elsewhere in the world to become golf’s “5th major”, and that the PGA could use a much later date on the calendar, you can’t “un-major” that.