When the PGA of America agreed to move its oldest tournament, the PGA Championship, from August to May, there was considerably more focus on the challenges and risks of the decision, particularly as it relates to upcoming venues in more northern climes that have been locked in for years. Including the upcoming 101st PGA at Bethpage Black in New York.
The upside? Well, for golf it seemed obvious with a schedule of four majors in consecutive months. And for the PGA Tour, which sought to end its season before American television viewers flocked to football, elbowing the PGA Championship out of August was essential.
The PGA’s reward was unspecified, if not altogether nonexistent. Then Tiger Woods won the Masters. Tickets for the championship, which is May 16-19, are sold out.
“We thought it [the move to May] was smart; it looks brilliant now,” said Seth Waugh, who will attend his first PGA Championship next month as the Chief Executive Officer of the PGA of America.
A four-time PGA Championship winner, Woods, 43, captured his fifth green jacket and 15th major title a little more than two weeks ago at Augusta National Golf Club, outlasting Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and other prominent contenders to end an 11-year drought in the majors. His comeback from back surgery and sordid personal challenges has been hailed as one of the most remarkable in the history of golf, if not sports at large.
When he tees it up at Bethpage Black, where he captured the 2002 U.S. Open, Woods will not have competed since his one-stroke Masters triumph (unless he surprises everyone by entering next week’s AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas). He will be paired in the first two rounds with his primary Masters foes, Koepka and Molinari, who currently hold the other major titles. Koepka is the defending PGA champion and well as the two-time U.S. Open champion, while Molinari won last year’s Open Championship.
Vying for the second leg of a potential grand slam, Woods has not won the PGA since 2007 at Southern Hills in Tulsa.
“We’d rather be lucky than good,” Waugh said during a conference call Tuesday morning that also included Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, who oversees the setup of the course and the operations of the tournament.
“We were very excited about the May change before Tiger made his fireworks in Georgia in the sense that we think it's just a better cadence for the whole season, as well as for ourselves,” said Waugh, who was named successor to Pete Bevacqua last August. “We really look forward to every year having the same momentum, or I don’t know if we could have the same momentum and count on him [Woods] forever, but that momentum from the Masters into the PGA is extraordinary.
“Obviously, Tiger, you know … he has impact.”
The other potential impact on the championship is one for which the PGA of America has been girding since it agreed to have its tournament in May on Long Island—and that is the weather and its effect on course conditions. Haigh will be similarly apprehensive when the PGA goes to Trump National in New Jersey in 2022, Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., in ’23, Aronimink in Pennsylvania in 2027 and back to New Jersey in 2029 at Baltusrol.
Currently, Bethpage Black, which also hosted the U.S. Open in 2009, isn’t quite in the shape Haigh would prefer, though he didn’t put it that way. “Just need a few warmer days the next 10-14 days, and I think the golf course will be in just outstanding condition,” he said.
Interestingly, Haigh expects the layout to be in better shape than it would have been in August. It’s likely to also have healthier rough, close to four inches, “and growing fairly quickly,” he said. “So, it will be a challenge, and it will be pretty tough if you get into it.”
“The cool season grasses will and should be a lot healthier,” Haigh added. “They will be sort of improving, as opposed to in the August date previously, we were sort of more on a hanging-on, keeping-the-grass, the-cool-season-grasses-alive mode. Whereas the spring temperatures are likely, obviously, to be more temperate … which I think everyone will enjoy. But also more likely [to] have more chance of wind and probably tougher playing conditions.”
And who knows what effect those cooler temperatures will have on the surgically repaired back of a certain 43-year-old golfer. Perhaps Tiger Woods knew he needed to be well rested.