A century ago, the PGA Championship got off to a tense, tight start
On the eve of having crowned its first winner 100 years ago, the PGA Championship is looking rather spry for reaching such a venerable age. Through notorious August heat, a switch from match to stroke play in 1958, more heat, a never-ending need to validate its major status and still more heat, the PGA keeps striving each year to have one of the greatest fields of the season.
The PGA is the third oldest of the four majors, started 56 years after the Open Championship and 21 years after the U.S. Open but 19 years before the Masters. Yet for decades, the PGA has been treated with wide disrespect as the fourth-best of them all. Being simply the championship of professionals is likely some of the problem. Some of it is self-inflicted, abandoning its so-so “glory’s last shot” motto for the even more trite “it’s major” and “the season’s final major.” But each year, the champion never turns away from accepting his laurels, and if it’s the fourth favored, it would be a bit like trying to determine which of your four kids you like least.
From the start, the PGA was for professionals only. It is the championship of the PGA of America, 28,000 men and women members who run golf shops, teach the game and work at making it more popular. We’ve already passed the 100th anniversary of the association’s origin in January. Because golf professionals lacked a cohesive association in the early 1900s, a group of them gathered in New York City to make plans to organize one. Ideas and proposals were put in motion and by April 10, 1916, 78 members ratified a constitution and bylaws.
Six months later, it was tournament time. The association held its first PGA Championship on Oct. 10-14, 1916, a bit ironic that a major so closely associated with summer heat actually started in the year’s best golf weather. And the PGA didn’t go too far from its initial meeting place to have its inaugural event. In fact, it basically was right down Broadway, roughly 20 or so miles from Manhattan at Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, N.Y., a Donald Ross course that was just a couple years old. The championship had a $2,500 purse and a trophy donated by Rodman Wanamaker of department-store fame, and had already determined it wanted to go with the format used by the News of the World tournament that decided the British PGA Championship.
The 32 players who began match play included the man who would become its most legendary winner and one of the PGA of America’s founders: Walter Hagen. The Haig won the PGA five times (Jack Nicklaus would eventually tie him for most titles) and was second in another during the match-play years. In 1916, Hagen lost in the semifinals to Jock Hutchison, and would have to wait until 1921 for his first victory in the event.
Hutchison lost in the final to Jim Barnes of England, known as Long Jim for his 6-foot-4 height. Barnes had been rolling through his matches but was 3 down after nine holes of the 36-hole finale before getting to 1 down after 18.
Telling the gallery that he always played better after lunch, Barnes took the lead on the 25th hole (No. 7) and was still 1 up after 27. However, the lunchtime charm wore off, and Hutchison was 1 up with three to play. But the Scot missed a five-footer on the 35th hole and on the last green faced another five-footer, as did Barnes, both for 4s. After it was determined Hutchison was away, he missed and Barnes made his to win.
It was as exciting a final match as the PGA could hope for to begin its tournament history. Barnes repeated in 1919 as champion following a two-year break for World War I, and the PGA Championship was off to establishing itself as one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world.