2019 PGA Championship Preview: Major Changes Lead to Major Intrigue

The PGA Championship is taking place in a new month, on a new course and with a newly rejuvenated Tiger Woods—creating the most buzz the tournament has had in years.
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The PGA Championship has an identity issue. Or, more precisely, a lack of identity issue. 

In terms of prestige, it unquestionably ranks last among golf’s four major championships. Unlike its counterparts, the PGA has no signature feature.

The Masters benefits greatly from its iconic Augusta layout and its April date. After an eight-month majorless purgatory, Jim Nantz’s whispers serve as an unofficial beginning to the golf season and a welcomed reminder that spring hath sprung.

The U.S. Open scratches a sadistic itch, presenting devilish setups—often accessible, public courses—that force the world’s best to grind out pars and survive a battle of attrition.

The British Open offers a wonderful change of pace, with its browned-out links courses, rich history and quirky lingo. 

And then there’s the PGA. Until this year, it has traditionally been held during the throes of oppressive August heat at nondescript private clubs. No offense to Bellerive or Quail Hollow, but Pebble Beach or St. Andrews they are not. Sometimes the tournament is a grueling test (2008, when Padraig Harrington won at –3) and sometimes it is a Desert Classic-like birdie brigade (2015, when Jason Day posted –20).

It might have the strongest field in golf, but plenty of other events also draw the biggest stars. Its sole proprietary attribute—having 20 club professionals tee it up alongside the game’s greatest players—is more tacky than compelling. The PGA has also suffered from being the last major of the year. Not only has it felt like a dog-days afterthought to the three more prestigious events, but it also tees off just when MLB playoff races and NFL training camps are also vying for attention.

This year has brought the PGA a long-overdue face-lift. Starting this week at Bethpage Black, the tournament will now be played in May, as the year’s second major. It’s also the first time since 1974 that the PGA will be held on a  municipally-owned golf course, the result of a conscientious effort to inject egalitarianism into a sport with an exclusionary past.

The benefits of the change are wideranging, both for the game as a whole and for the tournament itself. In the past, golf has squandered much of its post-Masters momentum by not staging another major for a full 10 weeks. Now, each major is just one month apart, giving the season’s cadence a Triple Crown-like swiftness.
The new Tour schedule wraps up before Labor Day, ending the fool’s errand of trying to compete with college and professional football during fall weekends. The PGA Championship will also no longer need to shift every four years to accommodate the Olympic golf tournament, as it did in 2016. And the move away from August means that any corner of the country can host the major without heat indexes and sweat stains emerging as a story.

Another intriguing by-product of the move to May is the simple fact that one player will still have a chance at the Grand Slam—a feat accomplished exactly once, by Bobby Jones in 1930—when he tees it up at the PGA. This year, that player is Tiger Woods.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” says Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America. “We made really smart decisions with the move to May and with Bethpage, and they turned out to be home runs. Because of Tiger.”

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock in a wifi-less cave, you know that Woods won the Masters. His 15th major victory completed one of the unlikelier comebacks in sports history and re-ignited Tiger’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18 majors, a mark that seemed safe just five weeks ago.

Woods chose to sit out every tournament between Augusta and Bethpage, a reminder of the fragility of his 43-year old body and how little non-major tournaments matter to him at this stage of his career. That hasn’t scared off the oddsmakers, though; Woods enters this week as the Vegas favorite at 8 to 1, partly because of his rich history at Bethpage. He famously held off Phil Mickelson there to win the 2002 U.S. Open and finished tied for sixth when the Open returned in ’09. He has a tremendous track record at PGA Championships (though the same can be said of virtually every tournament), having won it four times and finished second on three occasions—including last year, when his closing 64 came up just short at Bellerive.

But he is hardly the only player who will fancy his chances. Rory McIlroy has been firing on all cylinders. Dustin Johnson was a 12-footer away from forcing a playoff at Augusta. Brooks Koepka seems to be a factor in each and every major. Francesco Molinari has blossomed into a player who can win anywhere. Mickelson finished second in both U.S. Opens at Bethpage. There’s also Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler and countless other contenders.

None of those players, of course, has the transcendent appeal Woods does. And while a calendar move won’t immediately boost the PGA to the level of its three siblings, a Tiger victory—at the people’s country club, to win his second straight major, to tie Sam Snead’s record of 82 Tour wins and to pull within two of Nicklaus—would elevate this PGA to one of those unforgettable events. For an old tournament searching for a new identity, you can’t ask for much more.