PGA never lacking the fun factor

Thirteen, eight and 11 under were the winning scores of the past three PGA Championships. Last year, Rory McIlroy had 20 birdies in his 8-shot win at Kiawah Island.

In 2000, Tiger Woods finished 18 under in regulation in the PGA at Valhalla, but it wasn't enough to avoid an epic playoff with Bob May. Twelve of the past 20 PGA winners have had 72-hole totals of at least 10 under.

The PGA Championship is the most fun of the four majors. It's unpretentious and fair with a venue that always rewards good shots. It's not that the other majors don't have flashes of brilliance or excitement, but the PGA is more intentional about bringing fun into its formula.

The Masters is unique for its setting at Augusta National. The golf course is the tournament. The U.S. Open is the People's Open, supposedly the hardest major to win, where par is not to be condensed and spat upon.

The Open Championship is links golf: quirky and a little goofy to the eye, but the oldest of the bunch.

The PGA has the distinction of being the last major of the year. It's the pro's major. Your hotshot club pro has a chance of playing alongside the game's best if he can finish inside the top 20 in the PGA club pro championship.

Jack Nicklaus, who won the last of his five PGA Championships at this week's venue -- Oak Hill -- in 1980, captures the common feeling among the players about the event.

"I'm a professional golfer and I'm a member of the PGA, Professional Golfers Association of America, and you're always proud to win the championship of your organization," Nicklaus said earlier this year. "So their championship, our championship, has been one that's always been special to players that are a member of that association.

"I think if you look through the years, the field of the PGA Championship is as strong if not stronger than any of the other championships."

I've always considered the PGA the most fun major since I watched Bob Tway hole a greenside bunker shot on the 72nd hole at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, to beat Greg Norman.

I was 11 years old. I hadn't yet formed any concrete ideas about the importance of the majors. So I certainly couldn't rank which one was the best or the most prestigious.

Mostly what I knew was that everybody made a bigger deal out of these tournaments than all the others and that Norman had a way of losing them.

Then in the 1991 PGA, the world got to see John Daly hit drives at Crooked Stick that soared farther than anybody had ever hit a ball in any major championship. It was like watching a home run derby on every hole.

Who can forget the beginnings of the Sergio Garcia-Tiger Woods rivalry in 1999 at Medinah or Tiger's duel with May a year later at Valhalla? And Keegan Bradley at the Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011, coming back from five down with three holes to play to get into a playoff and then win the PGA in his first appearance in a major?

Yet to many, this tournament, which became a stroke-play event in 1958 after being a match-play event in its first 40 years, lags behind the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship in prestige.

The Players Championship and the World Golf Championship events have come to rival the PGA with their big purses and top fields, but none of these events has a realistic shot at ever becoming a so-called fifth major.

The PGA Championship distinguishes itself from the other majors by being unstuffy, playable and fun. Its decision this year to allow fans to select the final-round hole location at the par-3 15th hole is a clear signal of its willingness to bring fun to major championship golf.

There is little chance the corporate green jackets at Augusta National would let their "patrons" in on the decision-making during the Masters. The USGA and the R&A aren't likely to do so, either. Yet these majors can still have fun without letting the fans make important decisions about the pin locations.

Merion didn't need a par-3 (the 266-yard third hole) that required some players to hit driver in the final round. No one has fun watching the best players in the world get embarrassed by a golf course that's overly punitive. Had the PGA of America set Merion up for its major, the overall quality of the golf would have been better and the experience more enjoyable for the fans.

The Masters always has around 90 or so players, the smallest field of the four majors. The game's most venerable setting deserves to have the strongest field. The PGA, on the other hand, tries not to leave anybody out.

With the exception of the club pros, just about everybody in the field at Oak Hill has a reasonable chance of winning. Woods is the overwhelming favorite to take his fifth PGA, but the course setup will ensure that a tough -- but fair -- course will yield enough birdies to make for a close ending.

On Sunday in 2003 at Oak Hill, I was standing off the 18th fairway to the left of Shaun Micheel when he hit that 7-iron to inches of the hole to beat Chad Campbell by 2 shots. Few people on the course or around the world knew much about the winner, but they knew it was the kind of moment tailor-made for the PGA Championship.

Many of us soon forgot about Micheel, but we never forgot the fun of watching his amazing shot.