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The PGA: An American Identity Crisis

Tuesday, the 4th of August 2020 | The Blade
The PGA: An American Identity Crisis Image

Despite its long and illustrious history, the PGA Championship still struggles to identify itself as a major championship.

The PGA Championship could be golf's equivalent of tennis Australian Open. What exactly is it that makes it inimitable? Why does it get lost in a group of only four major golf championships? Despite its long and illustrious history, the PGA Championship still struggles to identify itself as a major championship.

The PGA Championship started in 1916, making it 18 years older than the Masters, but still the younger sibling of The Open Championship and the U.S. Open. When the player fields are analyzed in the Majors, the PGA clearly attracts the strongest field. It consistently comprises of 90-100 of golf's top 100 players. The courses the PGA of America chooses for its annual title chase is, frankly, all over the map.

From its inception in 1916, and until 1957, the PGA Championship had a match play format, the only major to have this distinction. The tournament lost money in 1957 due to several factors, including finishing on a weekday and at the PGA meetings later that year, it was changed to stroke play the following year with the standard 72-hole format of 18 holes per day, Thursday through Sunday. Network television broadcasters, preferring a large group of well-known contenders on the final day, pressured the PGA of America to make the format change.

So, what would make the PGA Championship stand alone and get as much recognition as its contemporary brethren?

Let's start with the format. The PGA had it right from the start when the format was medal play followed by match play, as no other major installed this format. The issue became the length it would take to complete this format, but that seems like an easy fix. With the tournament moved to May, daylight hours are not an issue. Golfers, these days, also seem to spend less time practicing on the course prior to a tournament, so let's get this show on the road starting on Wednesday. The event would commence with 54 holes of medal play on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. After two rounds, a cut is made from 156 players to 60, not unlike any other PGA Tour event. On day three, the 60 players then battle for 16 weekend spots for match play. With this format, the odds of getting 16 top golfers would be tremendous. Saturday's schedule would start early (The Golf Channel would love this!) with 8 matches in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. The final day of play would include the semi-finals and final match, plus several other matches played among the early match losers for placing. I understand television wants more golfers but how many weeks do we sit and watch tournaments that routinely come down to two or three golfers, with many winning by multiple strokes (Shane Lowry won……19 Open by 6, Tiger won…… US Open by 15, Rory won....2011 US Open by 8).

More importantly than the format, are the venues the PGA of America chooses. In 2020, the tournament is being held at Harding Park in San Francisco. Harding Park is a municipal golf course. In 1974, Lee Trevino won the PGA Championship at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, North Carolina. Tanglewood is a county recreational park with two golf courses. After 1974, the PGA of America then retreated back to where it seems to be comfortable…at country clubs and high-end golf clubs. It wasn't until 2010, when the championship was held at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, would the PGA grace the fairways of a public golf course (In 1977, Pebble Beach hosted the PGA, but who really considers that a course?). In 2019, the title was contested at Bethpage Black in New York. Bethpage Black exists within the confines of a state park. Yes, golf very much originated as an elitist and rich man's sport and almost every course constructed early on became a country club or private club. But golf has evolved, not only in America, but around the world, and the number of public and municipal courses far outnumbers that of private clubs. So, the second answer to the PGA's identity question is answered here. Build your tournament around the fact that the general public plays many more rounds of golf than those select few who belong to country clubs. More members of the PGA of America apply their trade at public and municipal facilities as well. Make your event the Championship of the people and be proud to identify yourself as that!