Wednesday, August 10, 2011

PGA Championship

With Tiger Woods teeing it up, and his ex-caddie Steve Williams coming off a big victory last week, the PGA Championshipis shaping up to be more dramatic than ever. As the last Major of the season takes place this week, I think it is an important time to reflect on just what a Major is, and why our current Grand Slam (last won by Woods, asterisk or no, like it or not) is flawed.
The LPGA recently made headlines when it added a Fifth Major to the annual schedule of women’s professional golf, which comes as little surprise from a management point of view. More Majors means more press, more media attention, more viewers, and ultimately more money, which is what pro sports are all about.
For this reason, there has been talk of a Fifth Major in men’s golf for years, and the term is most often associated with the Player’s Championship, which grabbed the nickname thanks to a Sports Illustrated article several years ago touting an argument why it should be the Fifth Major. I’ve heard the same argument made for the TOUR Championship.
But the reality is that golf does not have too few Majors – it has one too many.
Three of the current Majors actually represent some sort of logical, official championship event, related to an important organization in the sport. The USGA is golf’s governing body for the US and Mexico, making the rules, running the amateur championships, and thus is full entitled to host its own annual championship, the US Open. It is essentially our national championship and the championship of our ruling golf body, and should be a Major.
Ditto for the Open Championship, golf’s oldest, known on our shores as theBritish Open. The Royal & Ancient is the governing body of golf everywhere else in the world, the older brother of the USGA, and hosts its annual championship, like ours, on a rotating series of great courses, and as the folks who put golf on the map, the R&A’s event can easily claim Major status.
The PGA Championship (cutely called the U.S. PGA Championship outside this country, just like we call the Open the British Open), is the championship of the PGA of America. Separate from the PGA Tour, the PGA of America sanctions and manages club and teaching professionals, the backbone of golf learning and course operations nationwide. Representing the 28,000 professional golfers who are not among the 300 or so out there playing for huge money every week, its championship, while the least prestigious, deserves Major status. Also, like the other two, and like just about every other national championship on earth, it rotates among an ever changing group of courses.
You will note that all three of the above are run by organizations, not golf clubs or courses, and while they are not exactly charitable events, it is the sport and its contestants that benefit financially from their Major status.
Which leaves the Masters.
I am not here to knock Augusta National, or its members, or the fact that Augusta founder Bobby Jones was a beloved amateur associated with the greatest traditions of the game. Augusta is a beautiful golf course, one of the world’s best, and besides the sheer quality, it is place steeped in tradition and will always be one of the most prestigious courses to play, be it as a recreational golfer or competing as a pro. I am also glad that to this day the club makes it a point to include amateurs. But I do have to ask the obvious and rarely spoken question: just what is the Masters a championship of and why should it be a Major?
It is not even clear when it became a Major, since it started as an invitational golf party for Jones’ friends, but the best consensus guess is around 1960, nearly three decades after they started playing it, at the same time the golf media invented the new Grand Slam concept (Jones was the only one to win it under its original format) and named the Masters one of its four legs. This also happened to be more than decade after Jones himself stopped playing competitively. It’s worth noting that it was not the case as it is now of a desire to expand the number of Majors: there were always four, but the Masters and the PGA Championship bumped the US and British Amateurs off the pedestal, demoting their long held Major status.
Ironically, the elevation of the Masters to a Major hurt Jones’ own career and legacy. When alive he was credited with wining 13 Majors, which then included the US and British Amateur, but he has retroactively been demoted. By the same logic, fans of the Masters as a Major, including presumably Augusta members, should support the idea of Jones being stripped of his Grand Slam win since it did not include the current four events. Likewise, guys who never actually won a Major are now on the list of Major winners because wins at the Masters well before it was deemed a Major have been retroactively awarded Major-winner status by record keepers. This is sort of like giving out Gold medals to past champions in sports that later become Olympic events.
The bottom line is that the entire idea of Majors is media created, since there is no sanctioning body, though today, I am sure that if the PGA Tour decided to name another event as a Fifth Major, like the LPGA just did, it would stick.
But the question remains, why do we have three clear national or organizational championships as Majors, plus a random fourth event that is entirely run and organized by a private club – whose membership is largely secret – which benefits enormously from a financial windfall of TV money by lobbying for its own Major status. More importantly, while the other Majors all have clear merit-based qualifications for players, the Masters does not. It is an invitational event, with players invited by a subset of the largely unknown membership, and while there are established traditions, such as inviting the Top 50 players in the world, past champions, other “Major” champions, etc., these traditions are unenforceable and can be changed at the whim of the club if they don’t like someone who would otherwise “qualify,” which seems crazy in an otherwise real sport.
But the overriding argument against Major status for the Masters is that unlike all the others, it is not actually a championship of anything or anyone. It is essentially a Major because it says it is. In this respect, it certainly seems like the odd tournament in a group of championships. The biggest argument I ever hear in its defense is tradition, but the opposite is true: tradition should dictate that the Masters not be Major, just as it was not in golf’s formative years or when Augusta founder Bobby Jones was out winning Majors. Traditionally, all the Majors were National Championships.
If we were to agree that golf should have four Majors, maybe because of tradition dating back to Jones’ Grand Slam days, or maybe because it is a nice number, or to match up with tennis, or for whatever reason, there are a slew of tournaments that make more sense to include than the Masters. The most obvious would be to reinstate the US Amateur, which certainly would not sit well with professional golfers or the PGA Tour, but tough. There are consequences to every decision, including turning pro, and once upon a time guys like Bobby Jones remained amateurs on principle, and in doing so he did not just leave a whole lot of money on the table, he forfeited his ability to ever play in the PGA Championship once it became a Major, which he presumably might well have won, just because he did not want to be a professional. Golfers today could face the same choice, just as they should for the Olympics, but won’t because that event is no longer concerned with amateur sports.
If we want to keep the Majors professional, we could copy tennis directly and add the Australian Open, an actual national championship which like the other three Majors has rules for qualifying, rotates between great courses annually with no shortage of excellent venues, and would acknowledge the fact that Australian players are pretty significant in the sport considering the nation’s population. Another obvious choice would be The Irish Open, which would match up neatly with the British as a true “open” to any player who has the mettle, in the second oldest homeland of the game, to be played on great links courses in the only country in the British Isles that is not part of Britain. After all, which has more golf tradition, rural Georgia or the Emerald Isle? The Player’s Champion holds a decent claim as the main event of the PGA Tour. A Continental Europe Championship rotating among all the landlocked EU countries would make more sense than the Masters, because it would still be a Championship of something and someplace, and would represent the homeland of a hell of lot more professional golfers than come from Augusta. Even a Chinese Open makes more sense.
The one thing we know for sure is that this week’s PGA Championship is the last Major of the year. But was it the fourth or the third?