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A Major Contender from Abroad
John Garrity
May 18, 1992
The British PGA may not equal the U.S. PGA for status, but its European star quality is unmatched
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May 18, 1992

A Major Contender From Abroad

The British PGA may not equal the U.S. PGA for status, but its European star quality is unmatched

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It was one of those galvanizing moments in golf history, to be forever etched in memory: Seve Ballesteros drilling a five-iron to within three feet of the pin from the left rough on the first hole of sudden death to win last year's PGA Championship—after he had bounced his drive off a golf cart. Jubilant fans mobbed Ballesteros as soon as he holed the winning putt. Who can forget their chant—"Seve! Seve! Seve!"—and the glow of vindication on Ballesteros's face as he leaned into a microphone and said, "In some people's minds, they were thinking Seve would never come back." And then the fans crying, "No-ooooo!"

This scene is not etched in your memory? Maybe that's because Ballesteros struck his memorable five-iron a year ago next week at the British PGA Championship. Ballesteros's triumph—the capstone of his dramatic return to form after a prolonged slump—was greeted on this side of the Atlantic with a pronounced yawn and scant mention in news accounts.

No, if you remember a golf shot from the summer of 1991, it's probably one of John Daly's prodigious drives at the PGA Championship in Indianapolis—the real PGA Championship, the American one, the one recognized as a "major." Ballesteros's five-iron at Wentworth—the shot not heard 'round the world—renewed a simmering controversy about golf's major championships. Who decreed that there should be four majors, and that they should be the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the American PGA Championship? And why are three of the majors in the U.S.?

These questions come up most often during the week of the once-grand American PGA, a tournament whose prestige has been devalued by a format change (from match play to medal play in 1958), inconsistent course setups and a spate of uncharismatic winners. But challenges to the status quo also emanate regularly from Dublin, Ohio, site of the Memorial Tournament, and from Ponte Vedra, Fla., home of The Players Championship. Both of these events aspire to major status, either as a fifth major or as successor to a demoted PGA.

Viewed from Europe, these challenges seem hopelessly parochial. "It's time we had another major someplace else," says the little Welshman, Ian Woosnam, who needed a Masters win in 1991 to validate his No. 1 world ranking at the time. Poll the other top European players—Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal—and you get the same response. Says Ballesteros, who's from Spain, "Everybody thinks the British PGA is like a major championship."

The list of recent British PGA champions reads like a list of, well, of recent Masters champions. Faldo has won the tournament four times, Ballesteros twice, Woosnam and Langer once each. Recent U.S. PGA champions include Hubert Green, Bob Tway, Hal Sutton, Larry Nelson, Jeff Sluman and Wayne Grady—worthy men all, but not one of them could cash an out-of-town check without a photo I.D.

So let's ask the executive director of the PGA European Tour, Ken Schofield, which tournament he would pick as the next major. "Clearly this one," says Schofield, meaning the British PGA. "But we'd need 10 of this, wouldn't we?"

Indeed, you would. The British PGA is—and we've been holding this back, to make an argument—small. Quite small. The total grandstand capacity at Wentworth wouldn't satisfy the gallery on one hole of the British Open, yet scats go begging. For most of the week one can follow a Faldo or a Woosnam from hole to hole and always find a spot on the ropes at the next green.

Concessions? Don't look for those mammoth, file-through tents that serve the galleries at Augusta National. At Wentworth a gypsy ring of caravans does a modest business between the 8th and 11th tees, dispensing hot bacon rolls, toasted sandwiches and beefburgers with Hazlewood's Brown Sauce.

Prize money also pales in comparison to that at the American PGA. Ballesteros got $144,161 for his victory, while Daly cashed a winner's check for $230,000. Another difference is that Volvo, which underwrites the European Tour, is also the official sponsor of the British PGA. None of the four majors has a sponsor's name attached to it.

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