No matter how hard it tries to elevate itself, the PGA is still
the last and least of golf's four major championships.
This is an article from the Aug. 21, 1995 issue
That's not a bad thing, considering the company. But while it's
easy to start a lively debate over which is the grandest of the
majors--the Masters, the U.S. Open or the British Open--the PGA is
fourth by a wide margin.
The PGA starts in the hole. It comes hard on the heels of the
British Open, during the summer dog days that don't lend
themselves to psychic highs. Worse, the Sun Belt sites that the
PGA seems to favor require so much watering in the windless,
ovenlike conditions of August that they too often end up playing
like the pincushion courses that are the antithesis of classic
But the overriding reason the PGA can't hit the board in a
four-horse field is that it lacks a distinctive identity. The
Masters draws its life from the rites of spring and the legacy
of Bobby Jones. The Open is the ultimate examination and the
national championship. The British Open, played over ancestral
linksland, is a timeless return to the birthplace of golf.
In contrast, it's hard to know what to say about the PGA. After
being knocked for holding too many championships at plain-Jane
courses such as Pecan Valley and Kemper Lakes, the PGA appears
to have sought refuge as the U.S. Open's little brother,
installing high rough, narrow fairways and fast greens--except
not as high, not as narrow and not as fast. The PGA has steadily
gotten better in small ways, but, truth be told, it looks and
feels less like a major than it does a regular event on the PGA
Because the PGA Championship is making money, the incentive for
change is minimal. But to cease being the most minor major, it
needs a bold move that would involve both a leap into the future
and a return to a rich tradition. The PGA should go back to
match play. The time is right, not so much because the PGA is
floundering, but because the old arguments opposing match play
have lost much of their weight.
The most prevalent is the specter of a Jim Furyk-Fred Funk final
(or equivalent thereof) being decided by a score of 8 and 7. The
Funk Factor terrifies television, which wants the assurance that
it can fill a three-hour telecast with some semblance of drama.
The same fear was in play in 1958 when the PGA converted its
championship to 72 holes of stroke play after having played it
at match since 1916. At that time, the fear could have been
labeled the Torza Factor, in reference to Felice Torza, a 1953
finalist. In the '80s the Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship,
despite being won in its inaugural year by Tom Watson, closed
down after only three performances due to poor attendance and
But in 1991, when the Ryder Cup emerged as arguably the premier
event in golf, it exposed the anti-match play viewpoint as
flawed. The Ryder Cup proved that TV has the technology to
follow matches in a compelling and revealing way, and that the
use of videotape doesn't dilute the drama. It proved that if the
prize is big enough, you don't have to have big names to hold
interest. Most of all it proved that the golf public craves
showdowns, where pride, history and emotion are on the line.
Showdowns are what could truly set the PGA apart. The spectacle
of personages such as Norman, Price, Els, Couples, Faldo and
Pavin in head-to-head competition for a major championship would
be the most compelling thing in golf.
Those who say such matchups would be rare because of the
perceived "crapshoot" nature of match play are overestimating
the Funk Factor. History tells us that in 39 PGAs played at
match, the best players won the preponderance of the time. Three
of the four highest winning percentages in the PGA, among those
who played in a minimum of 15 matches, belonged to Byron Nelson
(82%), Ben Hogan (81%) and Sam Snead (78%). The other, also 82%,
was owned by the man who beat Torza in '53, Walter Burkemo. And
it was certainly no accident that Walter Hagen won the PGA at
match play five times.
To avoid the worst-case television scenarios that match play
doomsayers have always cited, the final would have to be played
at 18 rather than 36 holes. In a starting field of 128 players
the champion would have to win seven matches. An 18-hole final
would allow the fourth round and quarterfinals to be played on
Saturday and the semifinals, final and consolation on Sunday, a
full schedule so that a creative producer could put together a
strong telecast no matter how lopsided or marqueeless the final.
With a little bit of luck the biggest problem would be how to
allow some 30,000 spectators to follow the championship match on
Match play would make the PGA a fitting climax, rather than an
unsatisfying fade-out, to the major season. For the first time
in decades, it might be described as last but not least.