The PGA Championship has an identity crisis. Educated golf fans recognize the tournament’s importance, but a casual follower easily could figure that its three-lettered title makes it a product of the PGA Tour, which it isn’t. The PGA of America, an organization built for club pros, runs a major championship structured almost solely for touring pros. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a bit like playing “Sunday Night Football” on Thursday night.
Branding is pointless if it’s not believable, and besides, the other majors need no introduction. The Masters has more distinguishable qualities than perhaps any sporting event on earth. The U.S. Open has a distinct character, most of it mean, and the British Open represents the game in its most natural, sacred state.
When it comes to golf’s fab four, the PGA is Ringo. Critics have been known to bemoan some of the venue selections, and this week’s gathering at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis will include 20 club pros (tee times). This annoys those observers who think it deprives the worthiest players, as if the big boys don’t get enough opportunities to qualify for the big events.
The past two PGAs have done very poorly at the box office: a 3.4 Nielsen rating in 2016 and 3.6 last year were among the smallest TV audiences ever to watch the tournament’s final round. You can blame Tiger Woods’ absence for the shrinking numbers across the board during that stretch, but the 2017 British Open copped its best final-round rating since 2009.
For this and other reasons, the PGA is doing itself a favor by moving from its longtime spot in August to mid-May, effective next season. The 2019 schedule realignment was designed to move the FedEx Cup away from competing against the NFL and college football, but I’m thinking the good folks at the PGA of America didn’t need a ton of coaxing to grab those available dates in the spring.
Start with the better weather, which should produce firmer and healthier course conditions. Add the notion that America’s elite clubs might be more amenable to hosting the tournament before summer instead of in the heart of vacation season. Very few memberships want to give up their sanctuary for two weeks in the dead of August.
Bethpage, site of next year’s PGA, is a public facility, so no real access issues there, but both U.S. Opens played on the Black (2002 and 2009) were plagued by rain, leaving the greens soft and the fairways more agreeable. Major championships should be played in challenging course conditions, and the Black is an ideal venue if you can’t hold the putting surfaces with approach shots from the rough.
Six of the past eight PGAs have produced a winning score of 10 under par or better. Jason Day shot 20 under three years ago at Whistling Straits, which was supposed to be a brute. And not since 2008 (Padraig Harrington at Oakland Hills) have we seen a winner come in at 3 under or less.
Without question, the PGA looks like a regular Tour event more than any other major. In filling the slot vacated by the Players, which returns to March, this is a golden opportunity for Ringo to reinvent himself. Since Keegan Bradley won an error-filled affair in sudden death back in 2011, Rory McIlroy’s triumph in the dark at Valhalla three years later has been the only PGA with any suspense down the stretch.
Blowouts happen. Dull Sundays are part of the deal. In May, however, it stands to reason that the PGA can start generating better TV ratings. Its strongest competition for viewers from another sport will be the NBA playoffs, which attracts a very different demographic and is played at night.
Compared with other months, people don’t watch TV in August. They get out and enjoy life, maybe go to the beach or golf their own ball. If August were such a hot time in TV land, the major networks wouldn’t wait until the fall to air their new shows.
From 1999 through 2003, the PGA was the hottest major in golf. Tiger Woods started the run with that thrilling win over Sergio Garcia, then topped it exponentially with his unforgettable overtime victory against Bob May. David Toms affirmed his standing as one of the world’s best by outdueling Phil Mickelson on the final nine at Atlanta Athletic Club, claiming his only major title. Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel came out of nowhere to win the next two as both earned their lone majors with some spectacular clutch golf.
Those days seem like forever ago. Maybe a fresh stretch of glory days will start this week in St. Louis. The PGA could use a good bounce from the golf gods.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org