Once a stepchild, PGA Championships now a true major - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Once a stepchild, PGA Championships now a true major

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It's true that the PGA Championship was once the stepchild of the four majors, an afterthought that Mark Brooks, Bob Tway, Rich Beem or Shaun Micheel were as likely to win as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. It didn't help that the PGA of America decided to take its championship to places like Kemper Lakes, Crooked Stick, Sahalee and Valhalla -- nice enough golf courses, but no place to hold a major.

Beginning in 2001, the tenor of PGA officials began to take on a more serious tone. Not only did it want to shed its image of not being able to stand up against the other three majors that were revered by all who played, watched and wrote about them, its aspirations were much higher.

The PGA visited Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001, where David Toms was more than a worthy winner when he outgunned Mickelson with a hole-in-one late in the round. The following venues are a who's who of championship golf -- Hazeltine National, Oak Hill, Whistling Straits, Baltusrol and Medinah. The last three PGA Championship winners have been Vijay Singh, Mickelson and Woods, respectively.

The statement it sends is that the PGA has made a strong, unified commitment to becoming a championship that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other three majors and look each in the eye, knowing that it doesn't come up short in any area.

Much of the credit can go to former CEO Jim Awtrey and present CEO Joe Steranka, who finally "got it" as far as venues were concerned. But the chief architect of the PGA's Renaissance is Kerry Haigh, who is the PGA's director of competitions and in charge of the course setup each year.

Haigh has established the standard of how a championship golf course is to be presented to the players, fans and media. In so doing, Haigh has drawn praise from all corners, players especially. They literally gush about how the courses are difficult, but not penal; fair and playable to those at their best for that week.

Each major has a distinct personality. The Masters has its tradition, the U.S. Open its brutal examination, the British Open its history. Until this year, the Masters was relatively unconcerned with the winner's final score. Sunday at Augusta allows players from the back of the pack to shoot a score that's good enough to win (see Jack Nicklaus, 1986). Now, it seems as if Masters officials are taking a page from the U.S. Open preparation book and they are guarding par with their life.

The U.S. Open has made a career out of protecting even par as its standard of excellence, but a handful over par has been good enough to win the last two Opens. Are Open courses becoming borderline? Only the players know for certain and USGA officials really don't care all that much what the players think.

The British Open is held at venerable old links courses that have basically one way to defend themselves: the elements. Greens are much slower than at the other majors because is the wind gets up as it's likely to do in Scotland and England, the ball won't sit still. The Royal & Ancient, who oversees the British Open, doesn't care a whit about the winner's final score. So long as he overcomes the conditions as presented, the "Champion Golfer of the Year," is well and truly saluted, whether he shot four-under or 14-under-par.

The PGA, with its current leadership, takes pages from the books of the other three to set itself apart, yet still remaining an equal. Haigh, more than anyone else who sets up courses for majors, understands the nature of the modern player. He protects the course as much as possible from the onslaught of big bombers off the tee with penal rough. But if the player misses the fairway by a few feet, he still has a chance to get his approach near or onto the green.

Green speeds are fast enough for players to give quite a bit of respect for downhill and sidehill putts, but they don't get so fast that they are unplayable. Haigh knows where the edge is and approaches it gently without fear that he will mistakenly cross the invisible line between perfect and impossible.

In that respect, the PGA allows a Sunday charge from back in the pack to a point. There might not be any 64s at Southern Hills this year, but 66s and 67s are likely possible for anyone at any time, whether on Thursday morning or Sunday afternoon.

The PGA is not the guardian of par. It is the most straightforward examination of all the majors. Courses in the last seven years, including this year at Southern Hills, are right there in front of the players and it's up to them whether they can pass the test. If the winning score is even par, that's fine. If it's nine- or 10-under, no one's feelings are hurt.

The leaderboards at the PGA don't lie. Anyone who finds himself among the leaders will be playing his absolute best golf. And having done so, will be justly rewarded. However, be just a fraction off and you will packing your bags on Friday afternoon. There is a fine line between success and failure at the PGA and that's the way any major championship should be.

Even with all its former warts, the PGA was still the fourth best championship in all of golf. But a distant fourth wasn't at all good enough for its caretakers. Today, the PGA is looked down upon by no one. As a result of a lot of hard work and a back-to-basics attitude, it would be hard to say where the PGA ranks among the four majors.

That would be strictly a matter of taste, which suits the PGA just fine.

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