John Huggan: USPGA suffers from ‘runt’ status

Jason Dufner, 2013 PGA Championship winner, looks over the 16th green during the 2014 Championship Media Day. Picture: Getty
Jason Dufner, 2013 PGA Championship winner, looks over the 16th green during the 2014 Championship Media Day. Picture: Getty
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An unfortunate place in the calendar and lack of a selling point count against the USPGA

THE runt of the litter, fourth of four both chronologically and in the minds of just about everyone in the game, the USPGA Championship can brag all it wants to about the statistical strength of its field, but there is no doubt that the PGA of America’s annual pride and joy is the least anticipated of golf’s premier events. Some of that has to do with the nonsensical date it occupies on the calendar. A mere three weeks after the Open Championship is no place for any major tournament. But, mostly, its place – just off the medal rostrum – is the result of a lack of any kind of distinct identity.

The Masters has its permanent venue in Augusta National. The US Open is (although not this year) supposedly all about the rough and the narrowness of the fairways. The Open Championship is always played on a links. What does the USPGA have? Miserably humid weather and no easily discernible resonance. Rare indeed is the fan who can instantly recall even the last three champions (Keegan Bradley, Rory McIlroy and Jason Dufner).

So, while the other three majors are easily recognisable, what Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews like to (erroneously) call “the PGA,” is not much more than a jumped-up PGA Tour event. It looks pretty much the same. It sounds pretty much the same, bar the ever-dwindling band of foreign journalists in the media centre. And it asks pretty much the same questions that we see week after week after week on the world’s biggest, richest and, sadly, most homogenous circuit.

As a measure of just how little impact the USPGA has, less than a week before the championship kicks off on a Valhalla course that has no business ever hosting a Grand Slam event (it is owned by, surprise, surprise, the PGA of America), the talk is all of next month’s Ryder Cup. Will Tiger be in the American side? Can Phil qualify? Does a 56-year old German merit a place in the European side? Those are the burning questions.

In comparison, debate over Dufner’s successor has so far failed to produce even a spark.

Time, of course, is short for Mister Woods. If we are to see the 14-times major champion on Scottish soil this year, he is going to have to produce something very special at either the Bridgestone World Golf Championship that concludes today at Firestone or at Valhalla a week hence. Trouble is, based on recent form and physical condition, what we can more likely expect is something very ordinary. Since his return to the game from back surgery, Tiger has been purring softly more than roaring loudly.

More immediately, Woods must surely qualify for the Fed-Ex Cup play-offs if he is to give US skipper Tom Watson (a fellow Stanford alumnus but not exactly a bosom buddy) any kind of excuse to select him for Gleneagles. Should that fail to transpire, it is hard to imagine Watson giving one of his picks to someone who has not played competitive golf during the six weeks leading up to the matches.

Woods, of course, could do the right thing and play a couple of European Tour events to warm up for what would be his eighth appearance in the biennial contest against the Europeans. And, if you believe that is even the remotest of possibilities, take a look outside your window. There may be a pig or two flying past.

Equally outlandish is the notion that European captain Paul McGinley will “burn” one of his picks on the newly minted Senior Open champion, Bernhard Langer. That isn’t going to happen, especially if the current situation remains in place a month from now. Does anyone seriously imagine McGinley will leave out Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Stephen Gallacher or even an out-of-form Lee Westwood in favour of a man who last played a Ryder Cup match in 2002? Me neither. As McIlroy diplomatically pointed out a few days ago, the estimable two-time Masters champion may be dominant on the geezers circuit but that is a far cry from what goes on amongst the under-50 set.

“I think the team dynamic is pretty good at the minute with the mix we’ve got,” said the young Irishman. “To bring someone in that hasn’t spent much time around us mightn’t be the best. Bernhard is not playing against the regular guys week in and week out. Yes he’s playing great golf this year – as has Monty – but, if they are to be involved, it should be as vice-captains. I’d be all for that. But I don’t think they should be on the team.”

McIlroy has a point. Look at Montgomerie, whose loud and vociferous championing of Langer’s cause surely has more to do with the eight-time European number one’s wish to “legitimise” senior golf than it does cold, hard facts. Yes, the holder of the US Senior Open and PGA titles deserves much praise for his play so far this year. But not so very long ago the same man was barely able to make a cut on the European Tour. Are we expected to believe that the 51-year-old Monty is so much better than the 49-year old version? Or is it simply that playing against “second division” opposition has him appearing so superior? Answers on a postcard please.

Then there is Phil Mickelson. Depending on the make-up of his nine automatic qualifiers come next Sunday evening, Watson will have a decision to make regarding last year’s Open champion. Should he show faith in a man who has played on every American Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup side since 1994? Or should he pay more attention to the sad lack of form displayed by the five-times major champion over the last few months? For what it is worth, it says here Watson will do the right thing and make sure “Lefty” is on the plane to Perthshire.

As for the final counting event for the US side, one thing Valhalla does have going for it is some (brief) history. Back in 2000, Woods and Bob May put on a memorable display down the stretch and into what became an epic play-off. It was one for the ages, with perhaps the only jarring note lingering questions over just how Woods’ wild drive (some things haven’t changed) off the 18th tee came to somehow reappear from the oblivion to which it appeared to be headed. Like the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and Jim Furyk’s backswing, it remains a mystery to this day.

So, a bit like the Ryder Cup that manages to be the most watchable event in the game despite a string of execrable venues (the last time, for example, the matches were played on a top-notch course on this side of the Atlantic was in 1981 at Walton Heath – since then, unremitting mediocrity) there is hope for the USPGA. The field, as we will no doubt hear over and over again during the coming days, is statistically well endowed. Barring withdrawals, it will be the first time that the top 100 players on the world rankings will gather in the one place at the one time. How very, very exciting.