John Huggan: Time for a major shake-up in golf

Ditch the USPGA, bin Augusta, promote the Players Championship and create a match-play tournament that will help take golf to all corners of the world

Dustin Johnson plays a shot from what was apparently a bunker at the US PGA in 2010. Picture: Getty
Dustin Johnson plays a shot from what was apparently a bunker at the US PGA in 2010. Picture: Getty

Throughout professional golf’s long history, what does and does not constitute a major championship has often been a popular debate. Initially, of course, there was only one in the men’s game, the Open Championship. Then along came the US Open, the USPGA Championship and, as recently as 1934, the Masters Tournament, to make up what today is universally recognised as the “Grand Slam”.

But what about the British Match Play Championship, once the Old World’s biggest event other than the Open; or the Western Open, the second-most important tournament in America before the emergence of the USPGA in 1916? Shouldn’t the winners of those events be accorded the recognition their victories merited at the times they were achieved? And let’s not even get into the fact that the immortal Bobby Jones’ 1930 Grand Slam contained the US Amateur and Amateur Championships because he was ineligible for the PGA.

Sign up to our Golf newsletter

The latest argument popped up just a week ago, when Inbee Park won the Women’s British Open at Turnberry, one of the five – yes, five – major championships in the ladies game. (The US-based Champions Tour also has five, but surely only the true golf geek could come close to naming all of them). Park’s victory set off an immediate stooshie over whether or not the 27-year old Korean has achieved the so-called “career Grand Slam”. While she has won all of the events that currently constitute the elite quintet, the now seven-time major champion finished first at the Evian Masters in 2012, one year before that tournament was promoted from “regular” to “major”.

Dustin Johnson is informed that hes being penalised by a rules official. Picture: Getty

On the other hand, Park’s latest victory came in an event that has been a major only since 2001. So what about those women – Laura Davies for example – who won the Women’s British before that date; should they be awarded retrospective major victories? And what about Australia’s Karrie Webb, who has won six – yes, six – different majors, including the long-defunct Du Maurier Classic? Where does she stand amidst all of this confusion?

So many questions, but the men’s game is far from immune from the same sort of nonsense. Take the 97th USPGA Championship that will begin on Thursday. If we were starting over tomorrow, does anyone really imagine that an event run by sweater-salesmen would be hailed as one of the four most important in the game? Indeed, would three of those four really be played in the one country? The answers to both questions are surely “no” and “no”.

Think about it. Would the following configuration not make much more sense in the 21st century? The Open and the US Open must remain in place for reasons to do with history and continuing prestige. They are, by a distance, the two biggest events in the game today. But what of the other two?

Much as it pains this column to admit it, the PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship – the biggest event on the biggest tour – must take its place amongst the big four. And the last should have a characteristic unknown since 1958, when the USPGA switched to stroke-play. It must be played at match-play and it must move around the world to Asia, Australia, South Africa and South America.

Such geographic versatility would have two benefits: acknowledging the contribution of hitherto far-flung places to the game at the highest level, and spreading the word to those locations so-far starved of major championship golf.

Still, the USPGA isn’t alone in looking out of place in this modern world. These days, it is all but impossible to justify the stature of an invitational tournament run by an ultra-private club with a dreadful record in the area of racial and gender discrimination.

The Masters, in fact, owes its major status to the media more than anything else. Back in the day, Augusta National founders Jones and Clifford Roberts were smart enough to wine and dine the press on both sides of the Atlantic. Suitably impressed – and sated – writers like Henry Longhurst, Pat Ward-Thomas and Leonard Crawley “wrote up” what was a basically a minor-league event until it attained an importance far beyond the worth it would otherwise have attained. Not for nothing does five-time Open champion Peter Thomson call the Masters, “the biggest con-job in sports”.

But we digress. This week’s PGA, as it is known in the US, is returning to Whistling Straits, where it was previously held in 2004 and 2010. It is, no question, a spectacular venue. But, owned by billionaire Herb Kohler and located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Whistling Straits has – like so many other resorts in America – ideas beyond its station. Hailed as “links-like,” the 560-acre Pete Dye-design is nothing of the sort, even if, from a distance, it looks to have potential in that area. Trouble is, any course where balls land short of greens and all but immediately stop cannot under any circumstances (other than flooding) be classed as bearing even a passing resemblance to seaside golf.

Five years ago, Germany’s Martin Kaymer claimed his first major title at Whistling Straits when he saw off still-to-be two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson in a sudden-death play-off. Neither man is what first comes to mind from that championship, however. A third man should have joined Kaymer and Watson for extra holes. But Dustin Johnson, surrounded by spectators, grounded his club in what turned out to be a bunker – one of 967 at Whistling Straits – on the last hole of regulation play and was penalised two fatal shots.

Although subsequent events have only served to confirm Johnson’s lack of thought in pressure situations – the 82 he shot on the last day of the 2010 US Open, the 2-iron he blasted out-of-bounds on the 14th hole of the final round in the 2011 Open and the never-to-be forgotten three putts on the 18th green at Chambers Bay earlier this year spring immediately to mind – it is still hard not to feel some sympathy for his fate.

So often, that is the way of things for the USPGA. Only the truly weird and wonderful incidents stick in the memory. Sadly, the eventual champions are routinely destined to be remembered – if remembered at all – only for winning the fourth of the four majors, both chronologically and historically. Ask anyone to rate the majors in order of precedence and last place never varies, even amongst those who have held aloft the giant Wanamaker Trophy.

“If I had a choice of what major I would like to win it would be the Open, then the Masters, then the US Open, then the PGA,” admits 1990 PGA champion Wayne Grady. “Not that I will give the PGA back.”

As for who is likely to contend for the final major title of 2015, look for the game’s bigger hitters to dominate. That has so far been the way of things at Whistling Straits – Vijay Singh emerged as the champion in ’04 – a course where length, or lack of it, will eliminate most of the field. Never mind though. Chances are, not long from now, not many people will recall who won or who lost the major almost everyone cares about least.