For a long time, it was the fourth major of the year -- ‘Glory’s Last Shot’, as it became known. Then, in 2019, it moved to a new May date and became the second major. This year, with the various coronavirus postponements and cancellations, this week’s PGA Championship has become No. 1 on the roster of golf’s biggest events. So more ‘Glory’s First Shot’, then.
As excited as I am to see some major championship golf, I’m probably not the only fan who has always felt that the PGA Championship is the fourth major in terms of importance, regardless of its place in the calendar. Yes, it’s still a major and therefore any golfer would sell a kidney to win it, but it’s difficult to pin down its real identity.
What makes the PGA Championship unique? What – besides its major status – elevates it above other events?
All three other majors have, to my mind at least, a clear identity and some unique selling points.
The Masters is, well, the Masters. It’s the only major that goes back to the same venue every year, which also happens to be one of the best golf courses in the world. Then there’s the history and traditions, and the many iconic moments we can all instantly call to mind.
The US Open has usually been set up to be golf’s toughest test, where level par or higher might well be the winning score. Although that is not a universally loved policy, and the USGA has started to move away from it in recent years, it was at least a fairly clear marker of what you could expect from the tournament. It’s also America’s national open, which counts for something, too.
As for the Open Championship, it’s the only major to be played outside the US. It’s got history galore, often glorious scenery and is the only major to regularly feature true links courses, sometimes with some pretty wild weather, presenting an entirely different kind of challenge to those the players face week in, week out on tour.
But the PGA Championship doesn’t really have much to hang your coat on. It regularly has the strongest field of the majors, as its entry criteria are less restrictive than the Masters, but neither is it an open that allows all-comers to qualify. It does, of course, have 20 spots for club professionals from across the US, but as significant as this may be for those individuals and their families, it feels like a bit of a footnote to proceedings once the action is underway.
So then, what could be done to spice up the PGA Championship a little bit? How could we transform it into every golf fan’s favorite major of the year? I’ve come up with a few ideas. However, I should say that they all come with a fairly big disclaimer: none of them are likely to be implemented any time soon, for all sorts of reasons. But in the spirit of blue-sky thinking, how about these suggestions…
Move it outside the US
This might be a long shot given that the tournament is literally run by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, I admit. But, if you were going to design the golfing calendar from scratch, and assuming you want the game to be truly global, would you really place three of the four biggest events of the year in one country? Tennis has four Grand Slam events in four different countries across three continents. As someone who lived outside the US for a long time, it was always kind of jarring that the majors were so US-centric, and the time zone issue alone meant staying up late on Sunday nights if I wanted to see the end of the tournament.
While this would be a pretty hard sell for some American fans, there will no doubt be some people out there who would love to see a major played at some of the world’s best courses, that would never otherwise host a tournament of that stature. What if the PGA cycled between Lahinch, Royal Melbourne and Valderrama, for example?
Make it match play again
I love match-play golf. I was almost as disappointed by the cancellation of this year’s WGC Match Play event as I was about the postponement of the Masters. At least we’re still getting a Masters this year.
Match play golf brings a totally different psychological dynamic, as it pitches one player directly against another. It’s a chance for players to gain bragging rights over one another, for rivalries to develop and scores to be settled. Although you couldn’t necessarily manufacture the matches so that you got the head-to-heads that everyone wants to see, the chances of getting a Tiger vs Rory (as at the 2019 WGC Match Play) or a Brooks vs. Bryson match-up, are good in the long run. You could also have some incredible David vs. Goliath moments when the club professionals come up against the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas.
This suggestion is perhaps a little more realistic than the first, as the PGA Championship was a match-play tournament until 1957. Admittedly, there are reasons why this came to an end and hasn’t been tried again since. The tournament decided to change to stroke play when it started to lose money, but that was in such a totally different era that I don’t know how relevant that is. Another issue is that you would need to extend out the tournament to allow enough time to whittle the competition down from however many entrants were permitted (perhaps 128?) to eventually, the last two. But that doesn’t necessarily seem like an insurmountable difficulty.
The final problem is, well, the final. Only having two golf balls in play that are relevant to the result of the tournament is certainly off-putting to broadcasters. So, why not have, let’s say, the top 16 players go up against each other on the last afternoon, with everyone except those in the final mic’ed up, making side bets for charity… anything to keep viewers engaged during the quieter moments of the main event.
Make it Stableford scoring-
This is another attempt to spice up the tournament by moving away from the ubiquitous 72-hole stroke-play event. A Stableford (or more likely the Modified Stableford system used at the Barracuda Championship last week) would entice players to play aggressive, caution-to-the-wind golf, potentially ramping up the excitement significantly, as you’d almost never have a situation where the leader is comfortably ahead of the pack and can just play for pars coming down the stretch. Also, the fact that the Barracuda Championship on the PGA Tour is an opposite-field event means we don’t ever get to see the very best players competing in this format. This would change all that.
Have a cut after every round
Now (if we weren’t before) we’re getting into really radical territory. The broadcasters might not be too happy about the possibility of a Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy missing the Thursday cut after 18 holes, but it would only need to be 30 or so players who went home after each round, so that probably wouldn’t happen, and it would add a massive sense of jeopardy to the first three days of competition.
Often my favourite day of a tournament is Friday, as the battle to make the cut can be just as, if not more, fascinating than the competition further up the leaderboard. Perhaps you could make it even crazier by having playoffs at the end of each of the first three days for any tied golfers on the cut line with only a limited number of places available for the next round, almost like a Monday qualifier. It would be carnage, but it would be great fun for the viewer.
So there you have it. Believe it or not, those were the best ideas I came up with. You may like some or none of those proposals. I certainly don’t expect any of them to gain any traction with tour players or the golfing powers-that-be. But the wider point is that we don’t have to do everything the same way that we have always done it, just because we’ve always done it that way. And I say that as someone who’s somewhat of a traditionalist normally. The fact is that at least 95 percent of golf tournaments follow the exact same formula, and the PGA Championship can feel a bit like a glorified version of every other week on tour. And that’s OK, but is it really the best version of what it could be? At a time when golf’s status quo is under simultaneous attack from both the coronavirus and new concepts such as the Premier Golf League, I’ll keep dreaming that the golfing authorities might finally be willing to break the mold.