PGA Championship ‘hit the lottery’ with move to May, Woods’ Masters win

By Tod Leonard
San Diego Union-Tribune
Tiger Woods

It is a windfall the PGA of America could not have fathomed in August 2017.

On the Tuesday of PGA Championship week at Quail Hollow, then-PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua announced the tournament would move from the August slot to a May date, beginning in 2019.

On the faces of Bevacqua and his cohorts were plastered seemingly permanent smiles.

They would no longer need such lame labels as “Glory’s Last Shot” or “It’s Major.” They wouldn’t be lost amid baseball’s summer pennant races and NFL buildup. Family vacations away from the television are still a happy promise in mid-May.

The PGA and its broadcast partner, CBS, knew it was a tremendous switch to leapfrog ahead of the U.S. Open. They just couldn’t have concocted what will transpire beginning Thursday at the Bethpage State Park Black Course on New York’s Long Island.

When Tiger Woods won the Masters four weeks ago to take his 15th major title and cap an incredible comeback from back fusion surgery, it was as if the karma from all of those muggy, sweat-drenched days in August at courses in Louisville and Tulsa and St. Louis came back to the PGA.

“Who would have ever forecast that the PGA Championship would walk into year one of this coming on the heels of one of the greatest moments in the history of the sport?” CBS Sports golf anchor Jim Nantz asked on a conference call.

“The PGA Championship hit the lottery with the move in 2019.”

In a way, Woods even helped them — though maybe not his own game — by choosing not to play any event since the Masters, thus ratcheting up the anticipation even more.

All of golf, it seems, stands to benefit. Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, said this week he expects ad revenues and ratings to increase. For the final round of the Masters, which was moved up several hours due to impending thunderstorms, CBS drew 18 million viewers at its peak, and the broadcast was the most-watched for morning golf in 32 years.

The PGA of America has said the weekend rounds were virtual sellouts before Woods’ victory at Augusta, and in the Masters’ immediate aftermath, the public response to wanting to be at Bethpage was “extraordinary,” said PGA of America President Seth Waugh.

“Obviously, Tiger has impact — sort of the moon landing,” Waugh said at the PGA’s media day. “It’s not golf; it’s ‘where were you, when’ kind of stuff.

“I don’t know about you guys, but watching the last putt at the Masters, (it was a) ‘I can’t wait to go out and hit some 7-irons in my backyard’ kind of thing, because you just kind of get the bug. We think this will really feed into that in a huge way.”

This will be the first PGA Championship to be played in May in 70 years. In 1949, at Hermitage Country Club in Richmond, Va., Sam Snead won the last edition contested in this portion of the calendar.

The PGA has held mostly an August slot since 1969, though there was an odd staging of the major in February in Florida in 1971 (won by Jack Nicklaus), and a move to July to accommodate the Summer Olympics in 2016.

The Olympics were a large factor in why the PGA and PGA Tour revamped the schedule, which facilitated the PGA Championship switch to May. In turn, the Tour moved its biggest event, the Players Championship, from May back to March.

“We always felt there was this excitement that happened in April, and then a bit of a letdown from the golf calendar,” Waugh said. “As you get people excited to play, and from a fan’s perspective, there was this big gap.”

Now, there is one big event per month from March through August, if you include the season-ending Tour Championship. The U.S. Open is set for June 13-16 at Pebble Beach, and the British Open will be contested July 18-21 at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Phil Mickelson

The front-loaded schedule has forced the players to alter their approaches to the majors and other events.

Phil Mickelson chose not to play in his hometown tour stop, the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, for the first time in his pro career. It has been his habit to play in tournaments the week before a major, but he didn’t do that before this year’s Masters, where he tied for 18th.

Owing to the high of the Masters and what it might have exacted from his body, Woods made the more curious choice of not entering any tournament since the Masters. He did show up at Bethpage earlier this week, all smiles, and practiced alongside Mickelson.

It will be 32 days from Woods’ final putt at Augusta to when he tees off at 8:24 a.m. on Thursday with Brooks Koepka, the reigning PGA and U.S. Open champion and Francesco Molinari, the 2018 British Open titlist. Woods certainly can count on good memories at Bethpage, having won the U.S. Open there in 2002.

“He has to come out and pick up where he left off at Augusta,” CBS analyst Nick Faldo said. “That was amazing. It’s a tall order. He’s not making it easy on himself.”

Known for its posted warning that it is an “extremely difficult course” that is recommended for only “highly skilled golfers,” the Black will be tipped out at 7,432 yards at par-71 for the PGA. Three par-4s will play at more than 500 yards and the par-5 13th is stretched to 608.

It can be a brutish layout to the average hack, but it hasn’t been overly punishing for the pros.

Both U.S. Opens played there (2002 and 2009) were won in red figures (3 and 4 under par), and in the two stagings at Bethpage of the PGA Tour’s playoff event, The Barclays, the winning scores were 9 and 10 under.

Rory McIlroy said he thought this PGA Championship would play like a normal tour event, and that a score in the region of 8 to 12 under par would win.

“It’s a really good course,” McIlroy said. “It’s been one of my favorites for a while.”

Kerry Haigh, who sets up championship courses for the PGA of America, said the fairways will be as narrow as they’ve been for the U.S. Open, and that green speeds on the gently sloping greens will be as fast as they can get them if they aren’t made soggy by rain.

The rough, however, figures not to be as penal because a cool spring has not allowed it to become as dense as it would be by mid-June.

“Everybody thinks we’re going to get knee-high rough,” Nantz said. “I promise you it’s not going to look like it did in those two Opens.”

What this PGA does possess is the beauty of anticipation.

PGA Championship

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Bethpage State Park (Black Course), Farmingdale, N.Y.

Yards/par: 7,459/35-35–70

Field: 156 — 136 tour pros, 20 club pros

2018 winner: Brooks Koepka, who finished two shots ahead of Tiger Woods at Bellerive.