Why the PGA Championship should be reverted to a matchplay event
This year marks the last time, for a while at least, that the PGA Championship will occupy its traditional August slot on the golfing calendar.
It has been staged in August every year since the early 1970s, except in 2016 when it was moved to July to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics, but from 2019 onwards it is to be switched to a new date in May, five weeks after The Masters and four weeks before the US Open.
The change is part of a new-look wrap-around PGA Tour schedule that sees the Players Championship return to March for the first time since 2007 and the Fed-Ex Play-Off series cut from four events to three. The season starts in the first week of October, with the Safeway Classic, but concludes earlier than before, with the Tour Championship played from August 22 to 25.
The latter change makes sense from a PGA Tour perspective because it means it will be able to complete its play-offs before its TV audience is diluted by the start of the NFL and college football seasons. However, quite what the change of date does for the PGA Championship, if anything at all, remains to be seen.
The problem is that for several years now the PGA Championship has been seen as the weakest of the four majors, not because of its tradition position in the calendar, but simply because, unlike the other three majors, it lacks an identity of its own.
The Masters has the aura of Bobby Jones, is the only major to be staged at the same venue each year and has the distinction of being the first major every year. Like it or not, the US Open is also easily distinguishable because of the brutal way the USGA sets up its courses, while The Open is the oldest of the four, is the only major played outside the US and the only one contested on a links on an annual basis.
Then there is the PGA Championship. What is its USP? It does feature a deeper field and, more often than not, is played on more prestigious courses than run-of-the-mill PGA Tour events, but is that enough to create a meaningful distinction between it and the plethora of multi-million dollar WGC, FedEx Series and Rolex Series events that now grace the calendar? No, I would suggest. Increasingly not.
It has become abundantly clear the PGA Championship needs a complete makeover to safeguard its major status and the good news for the PGA of America, the body that owns it and runs it, is that can be easily achieved. All they need to do is to return to using the championship’s original format.
The PGA Championship was inaugurated as a matchplay event back in 1916, when Englishman Jim Barnes won his first of two consecutive titles, and it continued to utilise that format until 60 years ago. Its history during that period is graced with tales of Walter Hagen’s dominance during the 1920s and with victories by the likes of Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. It was the Golden Age of the championship and is one which could and should be resurrected, preferably in time for next year’s championship, which is to be staged for the first time at Bethpage Black.
The TV companies will be nervous about switching back to a matchplay format because of the possibility of losing star players on the opening day but that outcome can be avoided with a 36-hole strokeplay qualifier before the leading 64 players progress to the matchplay stage.
That would mean the championship would have to be extended to five days but that is surely not too much to ask of the players when a major title is at stake and can only increase the income the PGA of America accrues from the event.
Bring it on, I say. At a time when the authorities are trying all sorts of new formats to breathe new life into professional golf, the oldest of the lot is undoubtedly the best option in this case.