PGA Championship 2017: Why moving the PGA to May won’t cost it the courses you might think
CHARLOTTE — Tim Thaney isn’t a member of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. But he is club president at Oak Hill Country Club, and paints an idyllic picture of Pittsford, N.Y., in late May.
That’s the time of year when the PGA Championship will return to upstate New York in 2023. Symbolically, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is when the club opens its pool, and the lawns in front of the homes on Kilbourn Road start filling in.
“We get a bad rap,” Thaney told me. “It’s not like a British Open on the coast of Scotland.”
This conversation took place on Tuesday, the day when the PGA of America announced that the 2019 PGA Championship would be moved from its traditional date in early August to the potentially dicey window—weather wise—of the weekend prior to Memorial Day weekend. At Oak Hill, that will be May 16-21.
For clubs such as Quail Hollow, which hosts the 99th PGA this week in Charlotte, making the adjustment will be easy. “Spring-time in the Carolinas is a great time to play golf,” says club president Johnny Harris. “If we’re fortunate enough to attract another PGA in the spring, we’ll just do what we’ve always done [the week of the Wells Fargo Championship]. “We’ll over seed.”
Notable, the move to May opens up the selection process to clubs in the south that weren’t previously considered for August. The landscape has changed so dramatically with the schedule change that PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua told me his association wouldn’t rule out bringing its championship to Florida, Texas and Arizona. Some of the options to consider are Trump National Doral (looking for a tour event after the departure of the WGC-Cadillac Championship), PGA National (which hosted the PGA in oppressive August heat in 1987) and TPC Scottsdale (host of the “Greatest Show on Grass,” the Waste Management Phoenix Open).
As those doors open, there are fears from the Northeast through the Midwest that courses on the PGA rota such as Bethpage (2019), Trump National Bedminster (2022) and Whistling Straits (a three-time host of the PGA in the last 13 years) might be excluded in the future.
Yet contrary to conventional wisdom, the move to May doesn’t necessarily knock out some of the traditional courses in the Northeast that played host to past PGAs. The reality, as Oak Hill could attest after hosting the Senior PGA that month will few issues in 2008, is not quite so bleak.
When I ran into Kevin Vitale, the general manager of Baltusrol, this week at Quail Hollow, he reminded me that the rough is lusher and the greens harder in Springfield, N.J., in May than conditions often are in August. He added that the chance of thunderstorms—like the ones that interrupted play at the 2005 and 2016 PGAs—are also less prevalent.
That’s not to say there aren’t potential risks. Bethpage experienced winterkill damage three years ago that caused the Black Course to remain closed until after Memorial Day. If that happens in 2019, it could create logistical and public-relations nightmares for the PGA. But given that was one of only two conditioning issues like that in the last 20 years, golf-course superintendent Andy Wilson doesn’t see the one-in-10 chance as a deal-breaker. “It’s up to Mother Nature more than anything else,” Wilson says. “If she wants to beat us, she’ll beat us and we’ll recover.”
If there’s collateral damage created by the move to May, it could be the loss of Wisconsin's Whistling Straits, host in 2004, 2010 and 2015. The biggest issue, according to resort owner Herb Kohler, is Kerry Haigh’s concern that not being able to grow the fescue rough, which gives the Pete Dye course hard by Lake Michigan not only its look, but more importantly, its character. But Haigh, the PGA’s Chief Championships Officer, is not going to let agronomical issues stand in the way of the PGA’s most solid partner and host of the 2020 Ryder Cup. Maybe Whistling Straits won’t be as beautiful—or penal—in May. Who cares? It would beat the violent thunderstorms that traumatized the event in ’15.
“We’d absolutely consider going back [to Kohler] for another PGA,” says Bevacqua, noting that the 2015 version won by Jason Day was “off the charts,” and that, while “Every site has issues. Every site has positives.” Reading between the lines, in the case of Whistling Straits, the positives far out-weigh the issues.
“We tried to express that August was a terrific month for a major, regardless of the Olympics,” Kohler said. “We still have options. It’s not one of my best options. But we still have options.”