When it comes to the four major championships, the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday in Kiawah Island, S.C., ranks fourth in the hearts and minds of players and golf-watchers. But there’s nothing wrong with being ranked fourth in a grouping of the four most important tournaments.
Many things are right about the PGA Championship. It has plenty of history on its side. This year’s renewal at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s Ocean course marks the 94th championship. The tournament was match play from 1916-57, after which it became medal play – the same format as the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
The list of champions is impressive. Four of Jack Nicklaus’s record compilation of 18 majors came in PGA Championships. Tiger Woods has also won the PGA four times among his total of 14 majors. Gary Player won the tournament twice, as did Lee Trevino.
Go back in time, and the list of winners is equally impressive. Walter Hagen won five times in the match-play era, including four in a row from 1924-27. Sam Snead took three PGAs in that era.
And how about elite players who lack a PGA? Tom Watson has won five Opens, two Masters, and one U.S. Open. What would he have given to win the PGA and make him a winner of golf’s Grand Slam?
The same question applies to Arnold Palmer. He won the Masters four times, the Open twice, and the U.S. Open once. Palmer tied for second in the 1964, 1968, and 1970 PGA Championships. The PGA and therefore the Grand Slam eluded him.
The PGA has also been played on many classic courses. The list includes the South course at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich., the West course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Oakmont just outside Pittsburgh, and the East course at the Baltimore Country Club.
At the same time, the PGA of America hasn’t been afraid to take its championship to newer courses. Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., is the most notable of these in recent years. Martin Kaymer won the 2010 PGA there; Dustin Johnson took a one-shot lead to the last hole but grounded his club in a bunker that he didn’t realize was a bunker. He dropped out of the playoff between Kaymer and Bubba Watson, and into a tie for fifth place.
This week’s PGA returns to another modern course. The Ocean course that Pete Dye designed could be a score-wrecker. I attended the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean course, when many players lost their nerve. Poor Mark Calcavecchia blew a four-up lead over Colin Montgomerie with four holes to play in their Sunday singles. He skulled a shot into the water on the brutal par-three 17th and lost the hole to Montgomerie, who won with a double-bogey. The U.S. still won the Ryder Cup but Calcavecchia was devastated and said he felt enough tension to last a lifetime.
Dye has touched up the Ocean course for the PGA so as not to make it such a killer. But it’s likely to inflict enough paper cuts to hurt player after player. It’s been pouring all week, so the course is soft. But it can play as long as 7,676 yards. If the wind blows, well, 76-76 could come close to making the cut.
Whatever transpires, the Ocean course will be one of the stars. And as far as where the PGA Championship fits into a ranking of the majors, Geoff Ogilvy, the winner of the 2006 U.S. Open, made an important point in a recent Golf World column.
“No one is walking around saying Jack Nicklaus won 13 majors and five PGAs,” Ogilvy wrote. “In the record books, a PGA victory means just as much as one at the Masters, U.S. Open, or British Open. That’s good enough for me.”
Point taken, from one of golf’s most thoughtful players.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein