Crazy Ideas

A winter golf major might never happen, but don't be so quick to dismiss it

January 16, 2019

The more cynical among the people who clicked on this story will have a quick response to the headline:

It’s never going to happen. Shut up.

Sure, fine. You’re probably right. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America just reshuffled their schedule, it works really well for everyone involved, and there’s not much financial incentive for any governing body to stick their prized tournament in January or February. Your withering-curmudgeon take is correct, and you may now leave to go yell at teenagers at the mall.

For everyone who remains, let’s engage in the magic of speculation. As I was losing a tennis match the other day, my opponent told me during a changeover that his favorite grand slam is the Australian Open. Obviously, this is a terrible opinion for which he should be mocked ruthlessly—who likes the Australian Open more than Wimbledon or the U.S. Open?—but he went on from that rough beginning to make some salient points. First, he said, it always comes as a pleasant surprise, which is true—much like the Spanish Inquisition, you never expect the Australian Open. I’m a pretty big tennis fan, and even I tend to wake up one morning in January and realize, oh, hey, there’s a grand slam happening. Second, he pointed out that it seems to move fast by grand-slam standards, which is also true, and probably stems from the fact that it’s impossible for Americans to watch most of the matches since they happen at odd hours in the U.S. We wake up, and boom another round has passed. It’s a brisk, surprising pleasure at a time when many of us in the northern hemisphere aren’t thinking about outdoor sports.

Couldn’t golf do the same?

Well, first off, let’s confront a major problem. Tennis is more of a global sport, and a much higher share of the global TV audience comes from outside America. Golf is making inroads on that front, but even though tennis has a country-club reputation, golf has a higher financial barrier to entry, and worldwide participation reflects that—by some estimates, there are 60 million golfers in the world, and roughly half of them come from the United States. An enormous chunk of the amateur golf population, and about 75 percent of courses, are concentrated in nine countries. That goes for the stars at the highest levels, too. Americans and the British dominate golf and always have, but tennis icons come from a broader swath of countries, especially in continental Europe. Tennis doesn’t need America, or at least not as much. All of which is to say that no governing body in its right mind would follow tennis’ example and stage a major somewhere that wasn’t convenient to an American television audience.

The good news is, they wouldn’t have to. While the R&A would be hard-pressed to find a sunny spot in the U.K. to host a January Open Championship, and Augusta isn’t ideal either, it would be incredibly easy for the U.S. Open or PGA Championship to host a winter major somewhere in the southwest or Florida. It’s already happening, sort of. In about a month, the PGA Tour will descend on Pebble Beach, and players will enjoy glorious 60-degree weather as they fight for one of the most prestigious titles on the non-major calendar. Four months later, they will go back to the same course for the U.S. Open. So I ask you: Why couldn’t the February event be the major?

There’s no obstacle, or at least no obstacle too powerful to overcome, and there are a few other good reasons for a winter major. Namely:

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The PGA Championship just moved to May, but wouldn't it really separate itself if it were played in winter?

The Novelty

I’m sure there are a million and one reasons why holding a major in winter would cost money on the marketing and advertising side—surely you want your big events happening during times when half of the country’s golf courses aren’t covered in snow—but from a spectator angle, it would be wonderful. I can’t help thinking of the PGA Championship here. That tournament has been an afterthought for so long that it made the drastic (and wise) move to shift ahead to May to become the second major of the year. Even with that transition, though, it will still pale in comparison to the three others. If it were held in mid-February, though, perhaps a week after the Super Bowl, or in late January during the bye week before the NFL finale, it would truly be unique. The mere fact that anyone in America would consider calling the Australian Open their favorite major is proof that “calendar novelty” holds actual appeal, even when a tournament is stuffed on the far side of the world. Nobody says the same thing about the PGA Championship, but that would change if it became the unexpected gem of winter.

Global Warming

It’s getting stupidly hot in the American (and global) summers, and this trend is only going to get worse. The heat scorched the greens at last year’s PGA Championship, links courses could conceivably vanish into the ocean, and even in tennis, the U.S. Open was forced to institute an extreme heat policy for the first time in its history last year. From the physical impact on the players to the condition of the courses, we’re going to see worsening effects over time. Holding a winter major guarantees manageable temperatures and beautiful courses in prime condition.

David Cannon/R&A

Two of Rory McIlroy's four majors came during a month-long hot streak in 2014.

Rewarding Early Form

Consider the case of Rory McIlroy, whose status near the top of the game owes itself somewhat to a month-long stretch in 2014 when he captured two majors and a WGC event. Without the majors especially, would he be quite the looming figure we know today? And, let’s take it a step further—should he have been able to capture two majors in such a short span? Isn’t that getting perilously close to a two-for-one deal? Aside from Australia, the three tennis grand slams are about a month apart in the summer, but each one is held on a different surface, which rewards different skill sets and makes winning multiple titles in the same year very difficult (since the Open Era began on the men’s side, even the French-Wimbledon clay-grass double has been accomplished by only four men: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, and nobody but Laver has won all three in the same season). But golf is golf—courses change to a degree, but the same skills are rewarded, and in the modern game even links courses offer less of a stern stylistic challenge. A player who gets hot in the tightly clustered major schedule stands a chance to win multiple times, and in fact that’s happened in three of the past five years, despite the fact that golf’s peculiarities of format and skill make repeat winners far rarer than in tennis. But form vacillates throughout the season, and a January/February major would likely open up the sport to a more diverse spread of champions and avoid crowning winners who routinely get hot in the summer.

Avoiding Summer Over-Saturation

In the space of five months in 2019, we’re going to have the four majors, two World Golf Championships, two FedEx playoff events, the Players Championship and the Tour Championship. If you’re a golf fanatic, too much of a good thing is a foreign concept, but let’s be honest—it’s asking a lot of the spectators and the players, particularly when you get into the FedEx Cup playoffs. Needless to say, the “regular” events on the tour during this span will also feel the pain of non-participation with the tightened schedule. Moving one of the majors to the winter would be a kind of pressure release that benefited the entire schedule and mitigated the chance of catching fatal golf fatigue.

So, look: It’s never going to happen, or at least not anytime soon. But a winter major isn’t quite as preposterous as it seems, and may even be a pretty good idea waiting patiently for its time to come.