Fourth on the calendar to be played, the PGA Championship has always struggled not to be last of golf’s majors in regards to impact.
It has not been easy, mostly because the other majors have such strong identities.
Played on the same course each year, the Masters is a pilgrimage, a season-starter in many respects. The field is small and intimate, the atmosphere festive, the TV audience massive.
The US Open is always in mid-June and is easily accepted as a necessary evil. Begrudgingly, players will concede it the toughest test, though by Friday two-thirds of them will scream about the course set-up. Fans, however, love to see players get punished.
What we get in mid-July is a return to the game’s roots, the Open Championship on a vaunted links, where ball-striking is the skill that serves you best and every step of your week revolves around a historical aura. The sport’s most flavorful week.
But the PGA? For years, it seemed to be the ugly stepchild, a hybrid, of sorts. In many ways, it felt like just another summer stop on the PGA Tour circus, what with its benign layouts and the same old, same old — thick rough, fast greens, ferocious humidity.
Things have changed, however, and PGA of America officials have done a wise thing to prop up this theme about the strength of its field. It is the deepest and the best of the majors, and because it is, players have embraced the PGA far more than 20 years ago.
“It’s the top 100 (players) in the world,” said Danny Willett, who only competed against perhaps 70 of the world’s top 100 when he won the Masters in April.
Then, the Englishman cited what is perceived to be a key reason why players have a greater appreciation of the PGA. “They are not really that bothered about trying to get greens up to 15 on the Stimpmeter or trying to have rough at 12 inches,” he said.
This “player-friendly” attitude runs contrary to other majors, especially the US Open, where the mission is to make sure under par doesn’t win.
At the Open Championship, playing conditions are often miserable and only when green speeds are pushed to the max are Masters folks pleased.
But beyond a comfort factor with the set-up, there is the notion that by August, players have found a positive form and more competitors are on top of their games than at the other majors.
Winter rust is often being knocked off in April at Augusta National, but not so in the sweltering heat of August.
That might help explain why of the four majors, the PGA seems to produce a younger winner, a fresher face.
Since 2010, the average age of the PGA Championship winner is 26.8, with five of the last six winners being in their 20s. Comparably, only two Open Championship winners since 2010 has been in his 20s; four have been in their 40s, another was 39, and the average age of the winner is 36.8.
With so much on the line at this time of year — PGA Tour players jockeying for higher standing in the playoff race, Americans and Europeans fighting for coveted Ryder Cup berths, the quest to bring good vibes to Rio — it will surprise absolutely no one if the blue-chippers dominate the leaderboard.
Those sitting in the top five of the Official World Golf Ranking — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson — should earn your attention, and if Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, and Phil Mickelson are lurking this weekend, it will continue a PGA Championship tradition, because this major in recent years has produced the best leaderboards.
Consider Day and Spieth head-to-head in Round 4 a year ago, with Branden Grace, Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka right behind. Or, the year before when McIlroy won, right in front of Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, with Stenson and Jim Furyk next.
The year prior to that? Jason Dufner won, but Furyk and Stenson were right there at the end.
We could go on, but the point it, the PGA Championship has produced great drama and quality winners for a solid stretch and while it’s truly not something you can quantify, you could make a strong argument for it being the best and most competitive of the four majors.
At the least, accept it as fourth on the calendar but not in quality.
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