Golf got one right.
For all the complaining about the decision to move the PGA Championship from August to May and, in the process, make the Open Championship the year’s last major, the change has worked out perfectly. And will continue to do so in the years to come.
The reason for the move wasn’t as simple as the PGA just deciding that May would be a better date for its event. As always in sports, money was involved in an important decision. The PGA Tour and FedEx badly wanted to move its playoffs out of September and away from competing with the NFL for TV viewers. As long as the PGA was the second week in August, that was impossible.
And so, a deal was worked out: The PGA of America would cede August to the tour, and in return, the tour would move the Players Championship back to March—where it always should have been.
The tour moved the Players to May in 2007, hoping to create the illusion that there was a major each month, beginning with the Masters in April and ending with the PGA in August. It didn’t work. The weather might have been occasionally cold and rainy in north Florida in March, but that was better than the blistering heat in May. When Tim Finchem was still commissioner, he talked about possibly moving the event back to March.
And, no matter how frequently the tour’s TV "partners" tried to imply that the Players was some sort of fifth major, no one was buying it. Better to return to March and be the first truly important tournament—albeit not a major—of the year. Or, as Greg Norman, who won the event in 1994 once put it, “a perfect warm-up for the Masters.”
Heads exploded in Ponte Vedra when he said that, but it was accurate.
The final impetus to return to March was provided by a desire to move the playoffs to an earlier date.
There were—to put it mildly—skeptics about the August-to-May move for the PGA. "What about spring weather in the Northeast?" they moaned. "What if you got a cold winter? Would golf courses like Bethpage Black, Oak Hill, Aronimink and Baltusrol be playable that time of year?"
No doubt there will come a year when getting one of those courses ready in May will be difficult. But how about the weather in August ANYWHERE? If the PGA Championship has had a signature in the past, it was horrific heat and humidity and thunderstorms.
Often, the best players were exhausted by the time they arrived at the PGA by the combination of trying to play three majors in nine weeks and the heat they had to face during the championship. Now, they arrive at the PGA a month after the Masters without having to deal with brutal heat. The weather at Bethpage this past May was almost perfect. It won’t be that way every year, but the odds are a lot better than in August.
What’s more, moving into the second slot in the majors’ lineup, has—and will—increase the visibility of the PGA. Players are fresher in May, fans and media will still be riding the high of the Masters—even in years when Tiger Woods doesn’t win—and there’s a vitality to the week that isn’t likely to be present for a mid-90s slog in August.
And, there’s more to it than that.
The climax of the majors’ season is no longer the fourth-rated major. As David Duval once said so eloquently, "If there are four of something, one of them has to be fourth-best.”
That has always been the PGA, and there have been years where the last major has ended more with a bust than a boom. Now, though, ending the majors’ season with the Open Championship is perfect.
To me, the Open has always been the best of the four majors, and not just because it’s been around the longest. The golf courses on the other side of the Atlantic are completely different than most of the golf courses in this country. Not only are they links courses, but how the week goes is almost always directly connected to the weather. The old Scottish saying, “If it’s nae wind, its nae golf,” rings true.
Consider this: Shane Lowry played brilliantly on Saturday at Royal Portrush to shoot 63 and take a four-shot lead this past weekend. He might have played better on Sunday to shoot 72 and increase his winning margin to six shots. The difference, of course, was the weather.
And then there are the fans. There are a lot of corporate tickets sold at all the U.S. majors—yes, including the Masters. A lot of the fans who show up at those majors are there to tell people they were there. I’m not saying that sort of fan doesn’t exist in Great Britain, but there are far fewer of them.
Many years ago, Tom Watson described the difference: “In the U.S., almost everyone grows up understanding baseball,” he said. “Maybe you don’t play the sport, but you're exposed to it, and you understand it. That’s the way golf is in England, Scotland and Ireland. They understand that there are some shots you hit to 30 feet that are great, and others that aren’t.”
In the U.S., you will hear a lot of "get in the hole!"—on tee shots from 500 yards away. In the U.K., you hear singing. Imagine if the "patrons" at the Masters burst into song the way so many of the Irish did this past weekend. They’d probably be removed from the premises.
I have a vivid memory of driving into Birkdale on a Friday morning years ago with the great Dave Kindred, my longtime colleague. Play hadn’t started, and the rain was coming down in torrents. The place was packed. Almost no one was looking for a corporate tent to hide out in until the rain stopped. Most were beginning to line fairways, waiting for the first tee shot to be hit.
“Don’t these people know it’s raining?” Kindred said as we pulled into the parking lot.
“They don’t feel rain,” I said.
Like I said, "Nae wind … "
I ask you this: Is there a better climax in golf than the impending Open champion walking up the 18th fairway with the huge grandstands on either side of the green packed with people standing, screaming and singing? Fred Couples calls it “the best walk in golf,” and he never won the Open. The giant yellow scoreboards are unique, and I always get a little chill when I see the hand-posted sign, which this year read: “Congratulations Shane. See You Next Year at Royal St. George's.”
The coolest moment, though, comes during the awards ceremony. It’s brief and simple: The head of the R&A says the most eloquent six words there are in the sport: “The Champion Golfer of the Year … ”
Gets to me every time, regardless of the winner. It’s the perfect annual climax to golf’s four most important events.
This year. Next year. And, I hope, forever.