Why the PGA Championship is better than ever

John Daly put the PGA Championship on the map in 1991, gripping and ripping his way around Crooked Stick until the Wanamaker Trophy rested comfortably in his hands. When J.D. won in Indiana, the PGA was considered the ugly stepchild of the major championships. Since then the PGA of America has transformed the beleaguered major. It is now on par with the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, even surpassing them at times. On the eve of the 88th PGA Championship at Medinah (Ill.) CC, Golf World explains why the PGA is not only the most improved major, but in some ways the best.

It's the climax to the season
Forget the FedEx Cup. That'll be a money grab. The players trying to make history all know the PGA Championship is the last chance to win a major, the last opportunity until the following April. The PGA of America hypes its tournament as "glory's last shot," which is a little overdone. This year, there are two World Golf Championship events and the Tour Championship remaining on the schedule, but nonetheless once the Wanamaker Trophy is raised, the season is essentially over.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson played only four tournaments after winning last year at Baltusrol. "For us to compete against football, and to continue our season after the PGA Championship, I just think it kind of loses its luster," Mickelson said two years ago, before the tour instituted the FedEx Cup series. More than likely, his sentiments will still ring true in 2007.

It has the best course set-up man
Kerry Haigh has evolved into a trailblazer for tour pros tired of getting upstaged by the green jackets at Augusta National, the blue blazers at the USGA or the men of the R&A. You rarely hear whining about bad hole locations at the PGA Championship, about the course being "tricked up" or an out-of-control Scottish greenskeeper taking it upon himself to grow elephant grass (Carnoustie, British Open 1999).

The PGA of America's stated philosophy is to "err on the side of the players," but Haigh, a 47-year-old Englishman who has been the course set-up man for the PGA since preparing Kemper Lakes in 1989, has found the proper balance between too hard and too easy, which makes for better golf and better theater. The USGA's Mike Davis did a nice job in his debut this year at Winged Foot, but the tournament was boring until the last hour. The new chairman of the Competition Committee at the Masters, Fred Ridley, has USGA roots (both as a past president and U.S. Amateur champion), so expect more bogeys and fewer birdies at Augusta. The R&A takes a laissez-faire attitude toward par -- saying scores are dictated by weather -- which leads to extremes.

"The PGA takes the same courses and makes them more fair and fun," Bernhard Langer said last year at Baltusrol. "The players know best when the course is good and when it's not good, and it's not just whether we play well or not."

The mainstream media has gotten behind it
It took more than a stocked buffet and clubhouse parking to win over the golfing press, but in recent years the cynics, critics and contrarians have been tapping nice words into their laptops about the final major. "The PGA Championship has become, unquestionably, the best American major," wrote Mark Whicker in the Orange County Register in 2005.

Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe has praised it in print, as has Brian Murphy, who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that "they saved the best major for last." Hank Gola wrote in the New York Daily News in 2003: "There is more buzz around the PGA Championship … than at any other major this year, Martha Burk notwithstanding." The change in level of appreciation for the PGA is not unlike what the PGA of America experienced with the Ryder Cup in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Give the press a good story and a well-run event, and they'll support it.

Tiger Woods praises the tournament
Television ratings play a huge role in assessing the PGA's rise from the days when it was widely acknowledged as the fourth major. And if Daly put the PGA on the map, Woods has taken it to another dimension. The Masters, because of the month it is held and America's fascination with Augusta National, will always get the highest ratings among the majors, but the PGA has ranked second twice in the last six years, and both broadcasts were heavily scripted with Woods in the plot. The first was his playoff with Bob May in 2000. The second was last year's battle with Phil Mickelson at Baltusrol.

The PGA plugged the good ratings into a contract extension with CBS through 2011. Everybody has come away happy, including Tiger, who counts his two PGAs the same as his four Masters, two U.S. Opens and three British Opens. "The PGA gets it right," said Woods. "They go to great venues, and you have great tournaments. I ask why can't all championships be that way?"

It has the best field
While a dwindling number of club pros tee it up Day One (when Daly won 15 years ago there were 40 in the field; the number is now down to 20), the season's fourth major has the strongest field, top to bottom. You don't get a lot of pizza delivery boys who made it through two stages of qualifying, or past champions 35 years removed from their major moment, or longshots such as the British Boys champ. In other words there's little fat in the PGA lineup.

Since 1991 the PGA has continually hosted the most top-100 players, thanks in part to a little-known clause listed almost as a footnote at the bottom of its exemption page. By "reserving the right to invite additional players not listed" in the standard exemption categories, the PGA of America is allowed to fill out its cast with the best players on the World Ranking, which enables it to keep its "best field" reputation alive. The Masters started using the top 50 from the World Ranking as eligibility criteria in 1999. The USGA moved from the top 20 to the top 50 in 2001. The British Open began using the World Ranking to exempt players into the field in 1986, but none of the other majors fills out its field by going beyond 50 on the ranking.

It produces memorable finishes
Part of this can be attributed to Haigh's set-up philosophy, part of it to pure luck. The first three days of the PGA are rarely dull, the way the Masters can be and the U.S. Open seemingly always is, and the finishes lately have been sublime. Players usually win the PGA, rather than benefit from a meltdown. Recent highlights include Davis Love III and the rainbow in 1997; Woods holding off Sergio Garcia at Medinah in 1999, then outlasting May for his third straight major at Valhalla in 2000; David Toms laying up, then making the putt to beat Mickelson in 2001; and Mickelson's up-and-down to win last year at Baltusrol.

Even the little-known winners provided drama, with Rich Beem holding off Woods' four straight birdies at Hazeltine in 2002 and Shaun Micheel striking a walk-off 7-iron to two inches at Oak Hill a year later.

It finalizes the Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams
There's always a story line at the PGA involving players trying to play for their country. Brad Faxon shot 63 at Riviera in 1995 to make the Ryder Cup team. Lanny Wadkins (1993), Lee Janzen (1997), Steve Pate (1999) and Scott Verplank (2001) have earned captain's selections based on their play in the PGA. There's disappointment, too. In '01 Curtis Strange passed over Tom Lehman after he missed the cut in the PGA, even though he was 11th on the points list and played a starring role in the comeback at Brookline two years earlier. Strange himself was one of the most controversial captain's picks, losing a key singles match to Nick Faldo at Oak Hill in 1995 after Wadkins picked him. "I've been on both sides of being a captain's pick," Strange said. "I know how disappointed the players will feel when you make the phone call."

The Presidents Cup team is also announced the Monday after the PGA, but captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have drawn more from the points list than peformance at the PGA. Player, for example, didn't take Geoff Ogilvy last year after he finished in a tie for sixth at Baltusrol. Nicklaus, though, did take Fred Funk after his seventh-place finish in the 2003 PGA moved him to 11th in the standings. When Nicklaus called Funk to inform him of the pick, Funk responded, "Atta boy, Jack!"

It has a fair playoff format
Somewhere between the vagaries of sudden death and the anticlimax of an 18-hole playoff is the PGA's more sensible way of breaking a tie. The PGA followed the lead of the British Open by creating a multi-hole Sunday playoff after the 72 holes were completed. Unlike the British, which plays a four-hole aggregate playoff, the PGA plays three holes. When Woods christened the system with his nail-biter over May in 2000, it branded the PGA's format. Four years later, Singh validated it with a victory over Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard.

The quality of venues continues to improve
It took hitting rock bottom, going to PGA National, Oak Tree and Kemper Lakes in consecutive years from 1987 to 1989, for the PGA of America to wake up and start awarding its keynote event to the best courses -- or risk being supplanted by the Players as the fourth major. The PGA's turning point came with its decision to package long-term deals that included the Ryder Cup with Medinah, Oak Hill, Hazeltine and Whistling Straits, which proved to be a rousing success.

The organization even realized making continuous stops at Valhalla was hurting its credibility and subbed Whistling Straits for the Louisville course in 2004. Woods saved Valhalla; if May had won, following Mark Brooks' playoff victory over Kenny Perry in 1996, the PGA would have had a harder time selling the Ryder Cup in '08.

In addition to playing major-worthy courses, the PGA is hard to beat when it comes to making them spectator-friendly. It was the first to bring the concept of Jumbotrons to an event, its 35,000-square foot merchandise test is as large as the one at the U.S. Open, and there has never an issue with traffic, since the PGA developed the model for off-site parking.

It has the best trophy
The U.S. Open trophy doesn't have a name, the claret jug looks like something that wouldn't sell at a flea market and nobody knows what the Masters trophy looks like. (It's a sterling-silver replica of the antebellum clubhouse.) The Wanamaker trophy however, announces its presence. It is by far the biggest of the major-championship trophies, standing tall (28 inches), wide (10½-inch diameter) and heavy (27 pounds).

The Wanamaker also has history: There's no telling how much beer John Daly drank out of it. Rich Beem put his son, Michael, in it. And Walter Hagen lost it in a taxi sometime between winning the PGA in 1927 and 1930, when Tommy Armour beat Gene Sarazen for the crown.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine