I mentioned previously that this year’s PGA Championship left me puzzled in terms of how it stacked up both to the other major championships played this year, and as a major championship in comparison to those other majors. Then, two things happened in the next 24-48 hours that proved the PGA Championship is going nowhere, in terms of such status within golf’s Grand Slam. First, Twitter exploded after Jason Dufner’s victory and whether that’s due to his popularity, his crazy internet meme #Dufnering, or his love-tap on his wife’s back end after holing out for the title, that type of spontaneous social media uprising does not happen with a “regular” event. The second was simply the majesty of the Wanamaker Trophy making the rounds, again on social media, whether in a pose with Dufner (like him sleeping with it) or in a background shot for media members. Your average Waterford Crystal trophy is not Instagrammed like that.
It was all great to see especially for this observer, who grew up loving the PGA Championship and in fact the first tournament I ever attended was the first round of the 1978 PGA Championship at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh. I was still in grade school but had paid close attention to Lanny Wadkins’ playoff victory over Gene Littler at Pebble Beach the prior year and for about the next 2-3 years I was sure that the PGA Championship was golf’s greatest event.
Then Jack Nicklaus won the US Open at Baltusrol in 1980 and I began to appreciate the concept of “the majors” but the PGA was still “equal tops”. Nicklaus won the PGA that year at Oak Hill as well so I had no reason to question that. But by the time Larry Nelson won the least-atmospheric major of all time (the 1987 PGA Championship, at PGA National, in Palm Beach Florida, in AUGUST), it was clear that the PGA had slipped. This revelation was similar to the time I first saw my Dad top one off the tee…I realized he wasn’t a pro and here my favorite tournament as a youth was clearly not as great as I had thought. The trend continued and the Shoal Creek episode of 1990 (actually, equally painful to watch as 1987) seemed to really drag it down beneath the level of its major counterparts. But John Daly breathed life back into the event in 1991 and it has thrived since, and has staged some great tournaments. Yet the debate still seems to rage every year about whether the PGA is the “fourth major”.
Why? I think it’s mostly due to the way the tournament presents itself, almost as if the world needs convincing of its major championship status. I think it’s time to lose the slogans. “The season’s final major.” “Glory’s Last Shot.” “This is Major.” “This is the PGA Championship.” “The Strongest Field in Golf.” All of this convincing might be completely counter-productive. Don’t try to persuade everyone that it’s a major when it already is a major. Lose the social media gimmicks such as the Pick the Pin Placement travesty that was beneath the dignity of one of golf’s greatest championships. Just let the greatness of the event shine through and the social aspect will take care of itself.
I also think something needs to be done immediately about the way the tournament is presented. CBS broadcasts far too many commercials. Someone on Twitter called it the “anti-Masters” and you can hardly get a worse comment than that. At the venue itself, to state the obvious it’s time to control the galleries. Why should courtesy be limited to Augusta National? There should be a no-tolerance policy for any wahoo screaming at impact, or engaging in other shenanigans. Period.
The PGA would also do well to de-couple the PGA Championship from the Ryder Cup. Every other year the PGA Championship is reduced in stature by the sub-plot of Ryder Cup standings. This might mean moving dates every other year. At the right venue, at the right latitude, the PGA feels right in August even though the major season feels very crowded these days. The Players Championship has tried to claim May but I think that effort has fallen somewhat flat. Why not play at a southern venue every odd year and play it in late May rather than August? Kiawah for example was a great venue but would have been better earlier in the season. Who wants to go to Louisville in August, or worse Atlanta? I live in Atlanta and didn’t even really want to go in 2011. But I would have liked to have gone in May. And dare I suggest that there are some serious major venues (Seminole anyone?) that would come into play earlier in the season?
Along those lines, and not that all of the venues recently aren’t fantastic courses, but the PGA has been at its best in recent years with water in view and an effort should continue to be made for sea frequency. Get back to Pebble Beach (a perfect August venue). In today’s world maybe you could even figure out a way to make Bandon Dunes work. Keep going to Whistling Straits. Upgrade the inland venues even more. With due respect to Valhalla, even if you own it, it looks too much like an every-week tour course.
The announcement yesterday of Bethpage Black as a future PGA and Ryder Cup venue is a great step in that regard. Bethpage is the kind of inland course where the PGA needs to be. Try getting back to Oakmont as well. But again, don’t let the Ryder Cup overshadow! I would have announced the PGA Championship at Bethpage first and saved the Ryder Cup announcement for down the road. It’s ten years away, what was the hurry? There would have been more than enough buzz by itself just talking about a PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. It even took some press away from Jason Dufner’s win on Sunday at Oak Hill.
Long term, it’s important for the rest of the world to know this championship as the “PGA” Championship and not “USPGA”. You can’t escape the feeling that to the Westwoods and Poulters, it’s not as important as other events on their calendars. Not that they wouldn’t love to win, as Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy did, but it’s obvious that the Wanamaker is not the one they grew up dreaming about. This is a radical idea but perhaps down the road the various “PGA Championships” (Volvo PGA, Australian PGA, Canadian PGA, etc.) around the world should be merged into one. Take it to southeast Asia once every 10 years. Take it down under and play it over Thanksgiving once a decade. Put it on one of the great venues of the UK, or Sweden for that matter, that never see major championship golf. Give Canada a shot as well. In non-Ryder Cup years play it on US soil, and in Ryder Cup years take it somewhere else. Just think what a PGA Championship in China would do to grow golf in that populous country. Guess which tournament kids from that part of the world would dream about winning! It would do 100 times more for the PGA in the Asia-Pacific region of the world than even Y.E. Yang’s victory over Tiger Woods did. It’s a crazy idea I know, and its time might be 50 years away or more, but I thought I would throw it out there!
For now though there’s really nothing broken especially when the prize is nothing less than the greatest trophy in golf. Long live the PGA Championship in the pantheon of majors!