No matter how hard it tries to elevate itself, the PGA is still the last and least of golf's four major championships.
That's not a bad thing, considering the company. But while it's easy to start a lively debate over which is the grandest of the majors—the Masters, the U.S. Open or the British Open—the PGA is fourth by a wide margin.
The PGA starts in the hole. It comes hard on the heels of the British Open, during the summer dog days that don't lend themselves to psychic highs. Worse, the Sun Belt sites that the PGA seems to favor require so much watering in the windless, ovenlike conditions of August that they too often end up playing like the pincushion courses that are the antithesis of classic championship golf.
But the overriding reason the PGA can't hit the board in a four-horse field is that it lacks a distinctive identity. The Masters draws its life from the rites of spring and the legacy of Bobby Jones. The Open is the ultimate examination and the national championship. The British Open, played over ancestral linksland, is a timeless return to the birthplace of golf.
In contrast, it's hard to know what to say about the PGA. After being knocked for holding too many championships at plain-Jane courses such as Pecan Valley and Kemper Lakes, the PGA appears to have sought refuge as the U.S. Open's little brother, installing high rough, narrow fairways and fast greens—except not as high, not as narrow and not as fast. The PGA has steadily gotten better in small ways, but, truth be told, it looks and feels less like a major than it does a regular event on the PGA Tour.
Because the PGA Championship is making money, the incentive for change is minimal. But to cease being the most minor major, it needs a bold move that would involve both a leap into the future and a return to a rich tradition. The PGA should go back to match play. The time is right, not so much because the PGA is floundering, but because the old arguments opposing match play have lost much of their weight.
The most prevalent is the specter of a Jim Furyk-Fred Funk final (or equivalent thereof) being decided by a score of 8 and 7. The Funk Factor terrifies television, which wants the assurance that it can fill a three-hour telecast with some semblance of drama. The same fear was in play in 1958 when the PGA converted its championship to 72 holes of stroke play after having played it at match since 1916. At that time, the fear could have been labeled the Torza Factor, in reference to Felice Torza, a 1953 finalist. In the '80s the Seiko- Tucson Match Play Championship, despite being won in its inaugural year by Tom Watson, closed down after only three performances due to poor attendance and ratings.
But in 1991, when the Ryder Cup emerged as arguably the premier event in golf, it exposed the anti-match play viewpoint as flawed. The Ryder Cup proved that TV has the technology to follow matches in a compelling and revealing way, and that the use of videotape doesn't dilute the drama. It proved that if the prize is big enough, you don't have to have big names to hold interest. Most of all it proved that the golf public craves showdowns, where pride, history and emotion are on the line.
Showdowns are what could truly set the PGA apart. The spectacle of personages such as Norman, Price, Els, Couples, Faldo and Pavin in head-to-head competition for a major championship would be the most compelling thing in golf.
Those who say such matchups would be rare because of the perceived "crap-shoot" nature of match play are overestimating the Funk Factor. History tells us that in 39 PGAs played at match, the best players won the preponderance of the time. Three of the four highest winning percentages in the PGA, among those who played in a minimum of 15 matches, belonged to Byron Nelson (82%), Ben Hogan (81%) and Sam Snead (78%). The other, also 82%, was owned by the man who beat Torza in '53, Walter Burkemo. And it was certainly no accident that Walter Hagen won the PGA at match play five times.