Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why the PGA Championship is My Favorite Major

No kid ever grows up wishing to win the PGA Championship.

That is the dichotomy of the season’s final major. It is one of the four biggest tournaments of any given year, but clearly occupies a space below the other three majors. Yet year after year, it’s the most exciting.

2008 pga championship
For years, CBS dubbed the tournament as “Glory’s Last Shot,” which was alternately the cheesiest slogan in sports and the most accurate. It essentially summed up why the tournament mattered – it’s a long seven months until the Masters.

Of course, the season doesn’t truly end with the PGA Championship as the FedEx Cup, Ryder Cup and Tour Championship all loom. Sadly, the PGA Tour applied pressure and the tagline has been changed to the dull “The Season’s Final Major.” Let’s call the Super Bowl, “Football’s Last Game of the Year.”

For the average sporting fan, the PGA Championship still ends the season. It’s the unofficial beginning of the end for summer. The coverage this weekend will be full of commercials for football and the new CBS primetime lineup. Enjoy the 30,000 Thursday Night Football ads you’ll see.

Everything about the tournament seems average. There is no fawning over Augusta. There is no moaning over the USGA ruining a golf course. There is no prose about the birthplace of golf.

This week, Golf Channel’s Chris DiMarco described the course setup at a PGA Championship as “fair,” which is pro-speak for, “We make birdies.”

It  explains why the PGA Championship has consistently delivered more drama, more stories, more excitement and more great shots than any other tournament in the past 25 years.

In 1991, CBS and TBS began coverage of the tournament, which led to expanded coverage and renewed interest. It coincided with the arrival of John Daly, who took the country by storm at Crooked Stick, and I remember watching the PGA intently over the weekend for the first time in my life.

By the time Tiger Woods came along, the tournament – like all others – received a tremendous boost because of his oft-stated goal of catching Jack Nicklaus.

In 1999, he dueled with a baby-faced Sergio Garcia and Sergio’s shot from the trees has been replayed approximately 10 million times since.

But it was the 2000 edition that changed everything. Simply put, the 2000 PGA Championship is the most exciting golf tournament in my lifetime.

On that final day, journeyman Bob May shot a 66 to match Tiger Woods, who shot 67, as they dueled on the back nine of Valhalla – where the major returns this year. The story was almost too perfect. Tiger was coming off of two straight historic victories in the U.S. and British Opens and was at the height of his powers. Bob May was nobody.

Their back nine and three-hole playoff are the most thrilling sustained period of golf I have ever watched. The first playoff hole, to me, is the peak of golf. People appeared to be hanging from trees. The gallery was loud and jacked up. May hit one of the best chips you will ever see, only to be answered by arguably Tiger’s most iconic shot – the 20-foot birdie that he ran after to point into the hole. The whole thing is fascinating.

Since that year, the PGA has delivered memorable moment after memorable moment.

The David Toms hole-in-one during his 2001 victory over Phil Mickelson. Rich Beem draining putt after putt to stave off Tiger in 2002. Shaun Micheel in 2003 and Mickelson in 2006 hitting remarkable shots on the final hole to win.

Starting in 2008, the PGA delivered perhaps the best four-year stretch of any tournament in history.

2008: Sergio and Padraig Harrington duel on the back nine, culminating with Sergio’s losing one in the water and Harrington drilling a birdie putt to win.

2009: Y.E. Yang stuns the world by staring down Tiger in the final group, mere months before Tiger’s whole world came crumbling down.

2010: Dustin Johnson and a sand trap that wasn’t really a sand trap but was.

keegan bradley2011: Jason Dufner blows a huge lead as Keegan Bradley sinks putts from everywhere down the stretch. Their first playoff hole features two shots knocked dead stiff. At the time, Bradley and Dufner were basically unknowns – just three years later, both are big stars.

Last year, Dufner conquered the PGA with one of the best iron performances you will ever see. The type of approach game that golfers fantasize about when their eyes close.

What makes the tournament so great – and why I believe it is so conducive to dramatic finishes – is that there is no pretension about its place in the golfing landscape. The course isn’t tricked out. There are no PGA Championships traditions. The energy and atmosphere is brought on by the fact that it’s your last opportunity for a long, long time to win a major. It increases everything.

In short, it is a golf tournament. That’s it. That’s why the ratings lag behind the other three majors.

It doesn’t matter. On the final round of the 2011 PGA Championship, I had just moved to DC and had yet to get cable. I had a television on the floor with four channels. When I saw that Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley – who the hell are these guys? – were battling for a win, I was depressed. “Man, this is going to be a rough afternoon.”

Instead, I was treated to an exhilarating final round, like I am seemingly every year.

College football is coming. The summer is ending. The PGA Championship is delivering. It’s the story of August.

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