News & Opinion

PGA’s future might not be so rosy in May

Is a move to May actually better for the long-term health of the PGA Championship?

In May 2015, I took three friends on a golf trip to the New York City area. The outing had been scheduled during the winter, and Bethpage Black, site of the 2019 PGA Championship, was one of our destinations. Unfortunately, I received a call that spring from Joe Rehor, the longtime PGA professional at Bethpage, informing me that we would need to make other arrangements because the course would not open until sometime after Memorial Day because of turf damage from winter kill.

All it takes is one winter-weather disaster having a major impact on a PGA Championship site in May and all eyes will be pointing south forever. No matter what the PGA of America’s leadership is saying now, it’s hard to imagine Hazeltine, Medinah, Whistling Straits, Oak Hill, Baltusrol and Bethpage being future PGA Championship sites. 

This gives the U.S. Golf Association a real opportunity to enhance its future U.S. Open sites by bringing some of these classic courses back into their mix. The PGA’s move from August to May, which was announced Aug. 8 and will commence in 2019 (“PGA gains clout with move to May,” Aug. 9, http://bit.ly/2vQCHBi), lays the best courses in the U.S. squarely in the USGA’s lap. 

Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America’s chief executive officer, has indicated that the move to May will open the Southeast, particularly Florida and Texas, as potential PGA Championship sites. He curiously has said that the PGA is confident that playing in May will have no effect on the ability of Northern sites such as Bethpage, which is on Long Island, and Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y., to host a PGA. We’ll see how that plays out as the PGA, which has committed its championship sites through 2023, announces future hosts.

The PGA Tour was the big winner with the schedule changes. Jay Monahan, the Tour’s first-year commissioner, said he was “ecstatic” with the move. Monahan scored his greatest victory, thanks to the PGA of America. Finishing the FedEx playoffs by Labor Day and the start of football season is a major coup for Monahan, who recently announced FedEx Corp.’s 10-year sponsorship renewal of the four-tournament playoffs. 

Was there any financial remuneration given by the Tour to the PGA of America to move its championship to the spring? This could come in real dollars or possibly a reduction in the Tour’s TV rights share of the Ryder Cup.

When contacted by Morning Read, Bevacqua would not comment on specifics of the deal. He is a tough negotiator, and it’s hard for me to believe that he walked away empty-handed. Money certainly could put the PGA of America in a better position to do, as Bevacqua put it, “what is in the best interests of the game.”

One PGA Championship director, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “They have created a monster with the onsite requirements needed for a PGA Championship. The weather really takes a lot of the traditionally great courses out of the mix in May and many other good golf markets simply don’t have the courses with the space requirements needed for major championship infrastructure.”

A major championship sets itself apart from weekly Tour events with the stature of the prize and the exceptional host course. It seems that many future PGA Championships will look like regular Tour events on steroids, similar to what we saw in the recent PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, which in other years is an annual Tour stop, in Charlotte, N.C.

The final component to all of this is the PGA Championship’s television contract, which expires after Bethpage in ’19. CBS has televised the PGA Championship since 1991. NBC is the PGA’s broadcast partner for the Ryder Cup and Senior PGA. 

NBC also broadcasts horse racing’s Triple Crown. The 2019 Preakness is scheduled to run on the third Saturday in May, on the same weekend as the PGA at Bethpage. Bevacqua has said the PGA will be played the weekend before Memorial Day and never on Mother’s Day. It sets up a head-to-head competition between the second leg of the Triple Crown and the PGA Championship.

This year’s Preakness earned a ratings share of 4.9 – meaning that 4.9 percent of the nearly 120 million TVs in use in the U.S. were tuned to the horse race – while Saturday’s telecast from Quail Hollow posted a 2.4 rating. There is far more competition for sports viewing in May than in August for the PGA. Hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs, also televised by NBC, the NBA playoffs and the Premier Soccer League will be underway during the PGA Championship in May. 

NBC already has a full plate of sports obligations that includes the British Open each year. It’s difficult to see how the network will bid for the PGA Championship, which has generated an overall ratings decline during the past three years, and with far less competition for TV sports viewership.

Among the other potential bidders, Fox is in the third year of an extensive 12-year contract to broadcast the USGA’s professional and amateur events. ESPN effectively has given up on golf. ABC, a former U.S. Open and British Open broadcaster, has a limited role in the game. CBS might be the only interested suitor.

The move to May might severely limit Bevacqua’s ability to get the PGA of America its best PGA Championship television deal.

While many questions remain answered with the announcement of golf’s new schedule, the PGA Championship also faces some unknowns.  

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: tedbishop38pga@aol.com; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga