News & Opinion

PGA of America should honor its match-play roots

2021 PGA Championship sign at Kiawah Island Resort Ocean Course
Kiawah Island Resort's Ocean Course will be the site of this week's 103rd PGA Championship.

It’s time for PGA, which used match play through 1957 to crown its champion, to team with PGA Tour and add a match-play event

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Change is inevitable.

In sport, change usually comes because fans are clamoring for some type of modification to a sport or competition that will make it more interesting or compelling.

In July 1957, the PGA of America played its last PGA Championship under the match-play format as Lionel Hebert defeated Dow Finsterwald, 2 and 1, in a scheduled 36-hole finale at Miami Valley Golf Club in Dayton, Ohio.

The PGA was the only major that determined its champion over a grueling process that potentially included seven sessions: 18 holes in the first four rounds and then 36 holes in the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final. That’s a potential 180 holes for the finalists.

Championship golf was partly an endurance test, which is why playoffs in the U.S. Open and British Open included either 18 or 36 holes – none of the modern-day two-, three- or four-hole aggregates to determine the best golfer that week.

Just think what those fans of the U.S. Open would have missed in 1962, if Jack Nicklaus hadn’t come back on Sunday to play against Arnold Palmer in Palmer’s Pittsburgh-area backyard at Oakmont Country Club. Nicklaus won his first of 18 majors and effectively moved Palmer out of the favorite’s role in future major championships.

But by 1957, television was becoming an important medium. Though the screen was small, and it produced small, fuzzy, black-and-white images, it represented the future in sports. Legendary Gene Sarazen, the PGA champion in 1922, 1923 and 1933, called for the PGA of America to get with the times and move to medal play, commonly known today as stroke play.

“The change they should’ve made was to medal play,” Sarazen said in a story reported in Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal newspaper on the day before the 1957 PGA Championship.

Sarazen had withdrawn, but he told the assembled media that he didn’t like the fact that the PGA was creating consolation matches for fifth through eighth places.

“The nation’s fans want to see dramatics of the last couple of holes on their screens,” Sarazen said. “The grand finishes of Dick Mayer and Cary Middlecoff in the recent U.S. Open [which Mayer won in an 18-hole playoff] gave the sport a tremendous impetus over television.”

Sarazen said that prominent players such as Middlecoff, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson disliked match play, adding that a poll of PGA players likely would have been heavily in favor of switching from match to medal play.

Bob Drum, the longtime Pittsburgh golf writer, authored commentary under the headline, “Drab tourneys may force PGA to medal play.” Drum also took up the cause in August 1957, categorically stating why the PGA Championship needed to change from match to medal.

“Usually, the tournament was sold to a sponsor for about $50,000,” Drum wrote. “That meant the PGA would make a profit regardless of what happened. As a result, the organization didn’t care about the host club or the people that put up the money. They just showed up at the golf course and ran the tournament, got the check and went home.”

But in 1957, the PGA lost money when many of the top players lost in early rounds, so sponsors favored a change. They could not recoup their money in match play unless the top draws such as Sam Snead, Hogan or Nelson were part of the weekends.

Of course, some players – notably Walter Hagen, a five-time PGA champion in the 1920s – wanted to keep match play.

“The PGA Championship is one of the great tournaments because it’s match play,” Hagen said in July 1957. “Change it to medal play and what would you have? Just another 72-hole tournament, like those we have now nearly every week in the year.”

Hagen was right. The fourth major moved to medal play later that year. The 103rd PGA Championship, a 72-hole stroke-play event, begins here Thursday at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.

Though there is an argument that major championships are different, the format is the same. TV likes it, but the fans of today want more.

At its annual meeting in November 1957, the PGA of America voted to seek a sponsor and a site for a match-play tournament for all PGA members.

The PGA Tour did not form until more than a decade later, so all professionals were part of the PGA of America and would have benefited from the additional event.

I think it’s time for the PGA of America to work with the PGA Tour and create a PGA Match Play Championship.

I’m not naive enough to think the PGA Championship could be converted back to match play, even though it would be great to have a match-play major. Having another match-play tournament sponsored by the PGA would be well received and maybe even looked upon as something bigger than a normal PGA Tour event.

Match play is the most compelling format in golf. Consider the Ryder Cup or other international matches. They are extremely popular and compelling.  

It’s a long shot, but it’s a shot worth taking.

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