There is little reason to think it was pure coincidence that the first PGA Championship conducted under a stroke-play format was also the first to be televised. Even back in 1958, the relatively new medium of TV was pretty good at calling the shots. The fact the tube only managed to put the final three holes and the awards ceremony on the air is of little consequence. What was really lost that week at Llanerch CC in Havertown, Pa., was that perhaps the purest test of golf -- match play -- was abandoned by the major professional championships. What's viewed as progress is rarely undone, but in this case it is not too late for the PGA of America to give its championship back its identity and return it to match play.
One of the reasons the PGA Championship abandoned match play was because television did not like the uncertainty of the format. What if all the big-name players were knocked out before the weekend rounds? Gee, you might end up with a winner like Rich Beem or Shaun Micheel. If the PGA Championship has proven anything the last two years -- in fact, it is a point
well made by all the majors during The Great Tiger Nap -- it is that 72 holes of medal play does not guarantee a marquee winner. Last year's victory by Micheel produced a 4.7 Nielsen TV rating for the final round, the lowest by far for the tournament since Tiger Woods turned pro and well off the 8.8 it got in 2000 when Woods won his third consecutive major.
The problem for the PGA Championship -- beside the fact that it is the last of the four to be played and comes when football is starting to squeeze golf out of the news -- is that the other three majors have specific identities. The Masters is all about Augusta National GC. It is the only one of the Big Four played on the same course every year and in this case, familiarity breeds respect. The U.S. Open is a survival test and the British Open is, well, the British Open. It is the oldest, flukiest, and most fun of the four. Make the PGA Championship match play and restore its lost identity and its history.
The first argument against returning to match play likely would be that the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship already exists. True, but its field of 64 is determined by the Official World Ranking. The PGA can stand alone by having a stroke-play qualifier. Let 156 players who qualify for the field in the same way players qualify for the current tournament play 36 holes of stroke play to make the field of 64. Then let the match play begin. Also, the Accenture has proven that match play can work on TV. It can function not as competition for the PGA but rather as an argument to the networks that the PGA Championship would be made more marketable, more compelling -- and thus better TV -- by returning to match play.
Part of what has been lost by the PGA of America in abandoning match play is a link to the event's history. One of the most remarkable achievements in golf is the four consecutive PGA titles won by Walter Hagen from 1924 to 1927. In a stretch that ended with a 2 and 1 loss to Leo Diegel in the third round in 1928, Hagen won 22 consecutive matches. And in a streak that began with his 1921 victory in the PGA, Hagen won a remarkable 32 out of 33 matches. (The purse in 1921 was $2,580. That's the total purse, not the winner's share. As a result Hagen did not come back to defend in 1922, opting instead to play in a more lucrative exhibition match.)
The PGA Championship under match play boasted an impressive list of winners that included Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. The stroke play format has produced an equally impressive roll call of champions including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Nick Price and Woods. It is certainly interesting to speculate, however, if Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson might have won a PGA under a match play format and thus completed the career Grand Slam.
Perhaps it is its position on the schedule but, in recent years, the PGA has become the major that is most often impacted by the fluke factor. In the last 12 years, 10 Masters have been won by players who are now winners of multiple majors. In that same time frame, nine U.S. Opens have been won by players who now have at least two majors and six of the last 12 British Open champions have more than one big trophy at home. In the PGA Championship, however, only four of the last 12 have been won by multiple major winners. Forget first-time winners, the PGA has had a fascinating knack of producing winners who go on to nothing else.
Perhaps by the time mid-August comes around, the big names have lost a bit of their motivation. Perhaps the desire that was so fresh in April at Augusta has wilted in the August sun. That leads to another suggestion: Move the PGA Championship to May. That would give the majors a run of four consecutive months -- starting with the Masters in April and ending with the British Open in July -- that is bound to hold the interest of the fans, and the players. And what better tournament to have as the anchor leg of the four Grand Slam events than the British Open, the game's oldest professional tournament.
Match play in May. It has a nice ring to it. The PGA Championship would be going back to its roots. In fact, even switching dates to May is more in character with the event's history than out of character. The PGA Championship has been played in nine different months -- all but January, March and April -- and has been held in May four times. It did not settle into its August slot permanently until 1972. The PGA of America has a chance to go back to the way it was, and those opportunities are rare. They should seize the time. Match play in May. It's a match made in golfing heaven.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine