In an effort to lighten a jam-packed schedule in late July/early August and also start the FedEx playoffs earlier so they don’t interfere with football season, the PGA Championship made a major move in 2019 moving its tournament from August to May.
Of course, that will be the PGA’s official stance of why they are moving it. While those reasons are all true, a third major “unstated” reason is they hope the major will garner more interest and that ratings will increase with it moving more towards the middle of the season and away from the end.
The PGA Championship seems to be “the lost major”. In the years where Tiger Woods was out of action (2015-17), it was the lowest rated watched major of all four. Tiger Woods’ presence changes things, of course. If he were in contention in the St. Jude Classic it would outdraw a major with him out of contention.
When trying to figure what the PGA Championship lacks compared to the other three, it really comes down to the fact it doesn’t have “an identity.”
People 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 opens the major season. People 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. The Open Championship 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.Heck, even the Players, the “5th major”, has its identity with the island green at 17 every year.
And then there’s the PGA which has, well, ummmm….I don’t know. I mean, it’s a golf tournament.
The PGA Championship is played on some great courses, but it has the feel many times of every other PGA tournament. Scores tend to be 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, like the Players or WGC events. It just doesn’t scream excitement.
The interesting part is the PGA 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, we had a shootout of Brooks 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 his shootout battle with Y.E. Yang in 2009.
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. Bottom line is August is not a great month for golf. 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 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 great 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 this year which the USGA has decided not to return to. I like that they’re going to Harding Park and Kiawah Island in 2020 and 2021, 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. But if you want to see a heck of a golf course, that’s worth every investment.
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 use in Reno 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. Right now three of them have it. Moving the PGA to May is a good kick-start, but it still needs a couple more tweaks in order for the audience to fall in love with it.