The PGA Championship Is No Longer a Major Afterthought

For years, the PGA Championship was viewed as the "other" major on the calendar. But after moving from August to May, the tournament is attempting to reinvent itself.
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Jack Nicklaus won it five times. Tiger Woods has won it four. Tom Watson never did. The Wanamaker Trophy, which goes to the PGA champion, is the heaviest of the major championship golf trophies; at 34 pounds, it weighs 20 pounds more than the U.S. Open trophy and Claret Jug combined. Many would argue it is also the least prestigious.

The PGA has long been Major No. 4, both in seasonal order and in the public’s mind. The Masters is the one everybody watches, on the course everybody knows, and it announces that spring is here. The British (or Open Championship) brings us closest to the game’s ancient roots. The U.S. Open is our national championship, the game’s “sternest test;” it sometimes sucks the fun out of golf, but at least it’s distinct.

The PGA? It’s the other one. If “These four tournaments constitute golf’s grand slam” were a Jeopardy answer, a contestant might answer, “What are the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British, and … uh …” That would still be better than including the Players Championship, of course, but it’s not ideal.

The PGA moved from August to May this year, and from fourth in the batting order to second. It was a smart move for a tournament that has has struggled to find an identity almost from the beginning. To understand why, just look at the trophy. The engravings tell the story.

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The first golfer to win the Wanamaker was named James Barnes. The year was 1916. There are no known photos of him being awarded the Wanamaker.

Barnes’s name is engraved on the trophy alongside Whitemarsh Valley Country Club. Three years later (there was no PGA Champonship in 1917 or 1918 because of World War I) Barnes won again, and his name is engraved alongside Sunset Hill Country Club.

You might assume that Whitemarsh Valley and Sunset Hill were the clubs where he won the tournament. You would be wrong. Those were the clubs where Barnes worked at the time.

The PGA Championship is not run by the PGA Tour; most golf fans know this, but many casual four-times-a-year golf fans don’t. It is run by the PGA of America, an association of golf professionals. And for the first three decades or so of the PGA Championship, this made sense. The best players in the world did not sell Hublot watches and Zurich insurance and place expensive logos all over their clothes. They worked at golf clubs. The PGA Championship was their event—a match-play tournament that essentially determined the best club pro in the country.

According to PGA of America historian Bob Denney, Barnes worked at 11 clubs and taught seasonally at two others. Ben Hogan worked as the head professional at Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania for a decade. The arrangement worked out well for everybody. Players got a salary and a course and time to practice. Club members got lessons from a world-class player. The clubs got, as they said back then, a feather in their caps.

So now, look at the trophy:

Walter Hagen, 1927, Pasadena Golf & Country Club …
Byron Nelson, 1940, Inverness Club …
Sam Snead, 1942, Shawnee CC …
Byron Nelson, 1945, Toledo, Ohio …

Wait: Toledo, Ohio?

Yes: Nelson had resigned from Inverness, in Toledo, in late 1944 to become a full-time touring pro. It worked out quite well for Nelson—he won a record 18 PGA Tour events in 1945. (He also finished second seven times and in the top 10 in all 30 of his starts. He was a pretty good player.)

This would, of course, develop into the model for every world-class golfer.

By the late 1950s, engravers were putting a hometown next to the winner’s name, even if the winner worked at a club. In 1958 the PGA became a stroke-play event. In 1962, when Gary Player won, Player’s name was engraved alongside the host venue, instead of a home club.

The PGA was already entrenched as a major. Nicklaus would win his first PGA the next year. But it had also lost what made it a major in the first place. With touring pros replacing club pros as contenders, the PGA was not really the championship of anything. It was just important because it always had been.

John Daly, 1991, Crooked Stick GC …
Tiger Woods, 1999, Medinah CC …
Rory McIlroy, 2012, The Ocean Course Kiawah Island SC …

For most of the last 50 years, the PGA was held in August. This was unfortunate for a lot of reasons. There are not many U.S. layouts in optimal championship condition in August. It was often a sweat-fest for spectators and a watering experiment for greenskeepers. For many years, the PGA was marketed as “Glory’s Last Shot,” which always had a desperate feel: Hey, if you haven’t won the other big ones, come on by—while supplies last!

The PGA’s most famous tradition, other than having an awesome trophy and still allowing a few club pros to compete, was probably that the year’s Masters, U.S. Open and British winners played the first two rounds together. The PGA of America is keeping that tradition this year. But it is not a good sign when your major championship’s best-known tradition relies on the other three majors.

So now the PGA moves to May, which makes both agronomic and entertainment sense. It won’t feel like it was tacked on after we stopped paying attention. Now there will be one major per month for four straight months. Somebody will always arrive at the PGA with a chance at the Grand Slam. The PGA is no longer Glory’s Last Shot, and hopefully it won’t be Golf’s Top Afterthought. It is right where it belongs, even if it took a long time, and a winding journey, to get there.