Adios August can Mayday save PGA?
by M. James Ward
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield was famous in using the reference during performances that "I don't get any respect." While Dangerfield's utterance drew raucous laughter the tagline has become a heavy anchor fitted around the neck of the PGA of America for one of its two flagship events – the PGA Championship.
This week marks the playing of the 100th championship with Bellerive County Club as the host site. The event comes just outside one of America's grand sports heartland cities, St. Louis.
The PGA Championship started in 1916 at Siwanoy in New York and was played in October. For nearly the first half of its existence the PGA was a match play event. That ended in 1957 and every event since has been a standard 72-hole stroke play tournament. The PGA was slow to stage its event at clear-cut notable sites and the traditional August time frame did not help matters as overall television ratings were considerably behind that of the two other American majors, The Masters and US Open.
In 1971 a brief, but failed experiment, had the event played in Florida in February. The hope was that the new date would spur interest given the early time frame in front of The Masters. The event did produce a notable winner in Jack Nicklaus but the event languished with limited gallery attendance and even less television interest.
Since that effort, the PGA was moved back to the August time frame. The 100th event marks the final time the PGA Championship will be played in August. What had been golf's final major now switches to a May time frame in 2019 at Bethpage's Black Course on Long Island, NY. The movement was done via a fascinating trade with the PGA TOUR. The TOUR wanted to move its beloved FedEx Cup Playoffs away from the television ratings monster National Football League (NFL) – in order to do that the PGA of America has to agree to move the PGA Championship to a May time slot. The TOUR went further in consolidating its overall schedule by moving The Players Championship from May back to March where it originated. All of this was done so that the marquee event – The Tour Championship – would finish on Labor Day weekend during the first few days in September.
The PGA Championship will now follow The Masters and marks the reality that from April through July there will be one major event played over that time frame. Moving the event also presents some serious logistical issues. Courses in the Northern areas in America will face a shorter time frame for grass growing. This might prove especially vexing when the event heads to Rochester, NY at Oak Hill in 2023. The flipside of the coin also means that other locations – most notably those in the Sunbelt areas – with Texas and other such States now having a better opportunity to showcase themselves with a more ideal time frame in May rather than August.
Complicating matters for the PGA of America is a search for a new CEO as Pete Bevacqua leaves at the conclusion of the event at Bellerive. Guiding an organization with a membership of 29,000 is no small feat and the clamoring for someone to fill Bevacqua's position from the rank and file golf professionals is growing.
Over the last 30 plus years the PGA of America has sought to elevate the stature of the event. Jim Awtrey, the association's first CEO served from 1993 to 2005 and it was through his efforts that the PGA Championship moved up the ladder in terms of recognition. Matters were helped considerably when Tiger Woods entered the scene and his classic battle with journey professional Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship helped raise the profile of the event.
The May time frame demonstrates a bold move. Interestingly, the BMW PGA Championship, played at Wentworth, is also in May and it will be interesting to see how the top European professionals sort out their respective schedules and commitments to sponsors.
Past marketing attempts by the PGA of America in positioning the event as "Glory's Last Shot," failed because it clearly showed a desperate ploy for attention. The mayday attempt on paper bodes well for all involved. The issue will be how successful the 2019 event at Bethpage can be in giving a meaningful lift-off to an event that has been trying for quite some time to establish a meaningful orbit with its three better-known rivals.
We shall see.Photo credit – The Wanamaker Trophy at Bellerive Country Club, courtesy of The PGA of America