There has been a lot of speculation during the past few months about the future of the PGA Championship. It seems only a matter of time before the PGA of America announces that the Wanamaker Trophy will be awarded every May instead of early August.
Let’s face it: the PGA Championship clearly is the fourth-most prestigious major championship in golf. It’s been that way for decades. The U.S. Open always will be the pre-eminent American major despite the ambiance and attraction of the Masters. The British Open, with its history and international appeal, is third on the major rankings among American golf fans, and then comes the PGA, which will be played next week at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.
So, what can the PGA of America leadership do to elevate the status of its championship?
In a recent editorial for Golf Magazine, Michael Bamberger called for the PGA to be played annually at Pebble Beach. He presented many reasons why this would be appealing and fit the new schedule, but it will never happen. The U.S. Golf Association has a stronghold on Pebble Beach, and the course would not pass on an occasional U.S. Open in order to host the PGA every year.
But, I would take Bamberger’s concept and go one step further. It’s been my opinion since 2012, when the PGA brought Jack Nicklaus back to redesign Valhalla Golf Club, that the PGA-owned facility in Louisville, Ky., should be the permanent site for the PGA Championship and all domestic Ryder Cups. Valhalla has an impressive resume when hosting major events.
Three PGA Championships have produced great drama. In 1996, Mark Brooks defeated Kentucky native Kenny Perry in a playoff. No major has produced better theater than when Tiger Woods beat Bob May in a three-hole playoff in 2000. And then, Rory McIlroy outlasted Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in the darkness at the 2014 PGA. You can’t find two more impressive winners for the Senior PGA Championship than Hale Irwin in 2004 and Tom Watson in 2011, both Valhalla champions.
With all due respect to Brooks, the other four Valhalla winners have won a combined 42 major championships on the PGA and Champions tours: Woods (14), Watson (14), Irwin (10) and McIlroy (4). For a course that’s been open only since 1986, that’s an impressive roster of champions. The quality of these winners has seasoned the course for a permanent major.
Then there is the Ryder Cup. Louisville (or captain Paul Azinger) will claim credit for devising the concept of the “13th man” at the 2008 competition. Valhalla produced a rare U.S. win at the time. The atmosphere was electric, and the city is a proven big-time sports destination as host of horse racing’s Kentucky Derby since 1875.
Here is the best part: Valhalla sits on a massive 480-acre property, of which the golf course takes up 250 acres. That leaves a lot of land. There’s plenty to learn from Augusta National about the benefits of having permanent infrastructure to deliver an annual major championship and a Ryder Cup every four years.
It’s better for the PGA’s television partners with the ability to do permanent infrastructure. Imagine an onsite-lodging component to entice a national membership at Valhalla. How about a PGA Championship and Ryder Cup village that preserves and promotes the history of these two events? Valhalla would need a larger clubhouse and additional parking, but there would be a hefty savings to the PGA if it were to host the event at its own facility versus paying site fees to other facilities around the country.
Nicklaus called the Valhalla proposal “an interesting concept.”
“Moving earlier in the year – if they’re talking about May – virtually eliminates anything north of Louisville,” he said, in a nod to weather and early-season agronomy issues in the Northeast.
For those who say that Louisville couldn’t produce the corporate hospitality needed for an annual major, I would ask: Where would you rather spend a week: Louisville or Augusta? The corporate hospitality for the PGA and Ryder Cup are national in nature, not so much local. These events attract international sponsors and spectators from all over the world.
Valhalla also gives the PGA plenty of flexibility to keep its championship in August and simply play it in May every fourth year when the Olympics are staged. In the case of Augusta National, playing the Masters there every year certainly has enhanced player and spectator familiarity. I would argue that even with the natural beauty of Augusta National in early April, the golf course itself is not as dramatic or as challenging as at Valhalla. Certainly, Valhalla can be better and the PGA would be greatly incentivized to do that if it were a showcase of the championships that it owns.
Making it the permanent site for these events would enhance the value of Valhalla as asset. That would make me and my 27,999 fellow PGA men and women very happy. And who knows? Sometime in the middle of the next decade, when the final PGA Championship is played away from Valhalla, the PGA of America eventually could move its headquarters from Palm Beach Gardens to Louisville. Seriously.
Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga