| U.S. PGA Championship Preview
Who will lift the giant Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday 12th of August?
Sometimes and often unfairly viewed as the runt of the Majors, the U.S. PGA Championship founded in 1916 comes of age this year, 100 not out. But the US$10.5m tournament, which has evolved from a match play event until 1957 is about to transition into the third phase of its evolution. The venerable event is remaining a stroke play format but moving to mid-May in what is arguably the most significant scheduling change in PGA TOUR history.
The 2016 U.S. PGA Championship was impacted - ‘compromised’ might be a more appropriate word - by golf’s readmission to the Olympic Games. Rio de Janeiro saw the season’s fourth and final Major squeezed in between the Open Championship and the Olympics.
And with the biennial Ryder Cup, and to a lesser extent the President’s Cup demanding not only a place on the global golf schedule but also multi-million-dollar TV airtime and column inches, something had to give.
And it did. The tectonic plates of global golf shifted inexorably; having undergone a relativelyminor rescheduling for August to July 2016, world golf’s powerbrokers, the PGA TOUR, decided significant surgery was required. With the U.S. PGA Championship brought forward to May from next year onwards, perfectly placed between April’s Masters and June’s U.S. Open. With the Open Championship - the oldest and, arguably the most prestigious of all - drawing the ‘Grand Slam’ roster to a close by maintaining its mid-July slot.
But, given the logjam surrounding the world golf calendar and the competing interests - and the naked supremacy - of the PGA TOUR, any scheduling change inevitable results in cause and effect, action and reaction. On this occasion the - at best - weakening of the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at worst - moving the Wentworth event to a less attractive event, most probably towards the end of the English summer.
However, the ‘big beasts’ of the golfing jungle, the U.S. PGA and the PGA TOUR, individually and collectively the leaders of the pack are unquestionably delighted with the switch, irrespective of the impact on their transatlantic cousins.
"In weighing the complex evolution of the golf calendar, the PGA of America's key objectives was to promote the best interests of our signature spectator Championship, do what is best for the game, and find the most advantageous platform to fulfil our mission of serving our nearly 29,000 PGA Professionals
and growing the game," said PGA of America Chief Executive Officer Pete Bevacqua.
He added, "Our analysis began in 2013 and included an extensive list of factors, including having to shift the date every four years to accommodate the Olympic Games,” continued the PGA chief, adding, “In the end, we determined that playing the PGA Championship the week prior to Memorial Day in May, making it the second Major championship of the [annual] golf calendar, will achieve those three objectives.”
Tellingly, Bevacqua attested, “Television markets, in general, are stronger in May”.
Meanwhile, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said, “We are thrilled to announce these two significant changes, which will greatly enhance the professional golf calendar starting in 2019,” adding, “Our thanks to the PGA of America for its partnership in what will allow both organizations to meet our short- and longterm objectives, while delivering incredibly compelling golf to our fans around the world.
And European Tour CEO Keith Pelley tried to shore-up the situation, presenting it as a positive development rather than the threat it inevitably is, commenting, “Significant changes to the global golfing calendar have given us the opportunity to move the BMW PGA Championship to a more favourable date from 2019 onwards.”
But, lest we get ahead of ourselves, there is the small matter of the 100th U.S. PGA Championship to consider. And it promises to offer its traditional autumnal date a rousing send-off, at the Robert Trent Jones-designed Bellerive Country Club, near St. Louis in Missouri, USA.
Having hosted the U.S. Open in 1965, when Gary Player took the title - and, with it, the South African achieving the career Grand Slam following an 18-hole play-off against Australian Kel Nagle - Bellerive has staged the U.S. PGA Championship once before. In 1992, Zimbabwean Nick Price won the first of his three Major titles, winning the PGA again in 1994, having broken Greg Norman’s heart earlier that year by snatching the Open Championship from the jaws of the ‘Great White Shark.’
The course was subsequently upgraded to meet the demands of 21st-century golf and its awesome, technology-driven power and distance by Rees Jones, son of the so-called, ‘Father of modern golf course design.’
Today, Bellerive stands at 7,500-yards, a muscular Par-71, and a true test of golf for the event which tips a wink to its influential
members of the PGA of America by reserving slots for the 20 lowest scorers from its PGA Professional National Championship out of its near 20,000-strong membership.
Bellerive, which is only the third course in the USA to have hosted all of the country’s recognised blue-chip events, the U.S. Open, U.S. PGA Championship, U.S. Senior Open and Senior PGA Championship. At first glance, a feel of Augusta National about it, beautifully, but perhaps overly manicured, tree-lined, narrow fairways and enough sand and water to trip-up those taking liberties with RTJ’s creation.
The front nine should hold few fears. The sixth hole, a tricky 215-yard Par-3 is welldefended by water, sand and thick, mature deciduous woodland. The eighth, a fraction over 600-yards will offer-up as many birdies as it does bogeys over the week, a big hitter’s paradise.
But it is the back-nine in general, and the finishing stretch, called ‘The Ridge,’ comprising five finishing holes at Bellerive which will test the nerve of those in contention for the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday afternoon, when those pesky U.S. PGA officials plant the pins in their most severe positions.
Hole 15 is viewed by many as a classic Robert Trent Jones hole. Par-4, five-yards short of 500, into the prevailing southerly wind, well protected by bunkers. The contenders will be happy to come through on level fours for the week. The 16th, a long Par-3 into an upturned saucershaped green where birdies will be at a premium.
17th is a typical risk-and-reward hole. 603-yards, long by the club golfer’s standard, reachable in two for a final birdie opportunity for the 156 top professionals in the field. 18th is a demanding 462-yard Par-4, Sunday’s pin position, and scoreboard pressure could be critical.
The U.S. PGA Championship has thrown-up an intriguing mix of champions in the quarterof-a-century since the event was last at Bellerive. From thoroughbreds like Rory McIlroy, twice in 2012 and 2014, at the peak of his powers; Tiger Woods four times whilst at the pinnacle of his career; Jason Day winning at Whistling Straits in 2015 following a raft of near misses, defending champion Justin Thomas breaking his Majors’ duck last year.
But, for every Woods and McIlroy, there is a Jason Dufner, YE Yang and Mark Brooks, champions in 2013, 2009 and 1996 respectively.
And, whilst many of the great names in world golf in the post-war era appear on the U.S. PGA Championship roll of honour, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player amongst them, only one, Tiger Woods has successfully
retained the Wanamaker Trophy, suggesting Justin Thomas may not be the man on the podium at Bellerive this month.
Asked about the influence of Woods on his fledgeling career, Thomas, briefly world #1 earlier this year, says, “Oh, huge deal, he motivated me to get where I am now.” Perhaps accentuating the generation gap and a changing of the guard, explaining, “When you're seven or eight or nine or ten, and you're up there on the putting green, I was making putts to try to beat Tiger Woods in my head [and] it's great to have him back now.”
Looking back 12-months to his first Major victory, which many observers believe will prove to be one of many, Thomas reflects, “It was just kind of one of those crazy weeks that you may have once a round in your career or one, two, three times a week in your career where just everything is on and everything is clicking, and pretty much you just try to stay unconscious as long as you can,” adding, “The shot that I hit at 17th in the PGA was I would call the best shot of my career.”
So, will it be a thoroughbred, like McIlroy; a two-time U.S. Open champion like Brooks Koekpa; a stalking horse like Justin Rose, at #3 on the OWGR, victory at Bellerive might take the Englishman to the summit. DJ who has the game to overpower the 7,500-yard St. Louis track. Perhaps an Italian job, Francesco Molinari, runner-up last year, winner of the BMW PGA Championship this, 15th on OWGR, fourth on the Race to Dubai, a maiden Major title for the country that will host the 2022 Ryder Cup.
Or, might it be one of the 100-plus journeyman professionals, those in the lower reaches of the PGA TOUR ranking and those club professionals who have made it through to the culmination of their career?
Ryan Vermeer, Sean McCarty, Bob Sowards the top three in the PGA Professional Championship held in California in June. Ever heard of them?
No, me neither and it’s unlikely they will ever be heard of again. The odds of a U.S. PGA club professional topping the leaderboard of the flagship event at 5,000 - 1, much the same as an extra-terrestrial meteor hitting earth of a club golfer making a hole-in-one.
Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure. Whoever lifts the giant Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday 12th of August will enjoy the shortest reign of a Major champion as the U.S. PGA, at 100 not out, jumps the queue into a prime date in May 2019, just nine months before he has to defend his hard-won crown at Bethpage next year.
Who will lift the giant Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday 12th of August?
Pete Bevacqua, CEO of PGA of America
The Robert Trent Jonesdesigned Bellerive Country Club, near St. Louis in Missouri
Only one, Tiger Woods has successfully retained the Wanamaker Trophy, can Justin Thomas win it again this year?
Perhaps an Italian job, Francesco Molinari, runner-up last year?