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Minor Major

The PGA Championship may never be an equal to the Grand Slam's bigger three, but it usually provides plenty of reasons to watch

August 14, 2003|GEOFF SHACKELFORD | Special to The Times

On paper and in spirit, the PGA Championship probably will always rank as golf's fourth major championship.

But after the 1987 tournament, marred by bad greens, miserable weather and highly critical media coverage, many wondered whether there was anything major about the tournament other than the problems that came with it.

Some called for a return to match play, the PGA's format through 1957. Some players suggested moving the championship to May to avoid the heat and soft course conditions necessary to sustain turf in August.

Instead, the PGA of America, which runs the tournament, has quietly rebuilt its championship so that it fits comfortably in the same group with the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. The PGA improved the quality of the field by reducing the number of club pros in the field from 40 to 25, then selected former U.S. Open sites and prepared those classic courses to allow for well-timed, aggressive play. The course layouts weren't as penal as in the U.S. Open, not as quirky as in the British. A player could win by attacking the course, not simply surviving.

"I think the PGA tries to identify a more complete player," Phil Mickelson said at Hazeltine last year. "That is why players value this tournament."

Sixteen years ago, no one valued the PGA Championship in sultry Palm Beach Gardens. Fla.

PGA National was selected to host the 1987 event in only its seventh year of existence. Before the tournament, PGA officials said Palm Beach in August couldn't be any warmer than Toledo or Tulsa.

It was worse.

But sultry weather turned out to be the least of PGA National's problems.

One month before the tournament, all 18 greens were sprayed to combat a common fungus, one that is easily treated -- except when the greens are subsequently irrigated with water from a chemically treated pond. By tournament time, the putting surfaces displayed a camouflage hue, highlighted by patches of dirt, Bermuda grass and strains of bent grass.

The PGA also opted not to cut the dense Bermuda rough outside the gallery ropes, instead relying on crowds to push down the tall grass. That plan required a gallery.

"Contestants spent a lot of time counting the number of spectators in the galleries," wrote Dan Jenkins in Golf Digest. "In a practice round, the immortal foursome of Nicklaus, Watson, Norman and Fuzzy Zoeller was followed at one point by four people. Watson thought of introducing himself to each one and inviting them to dinner."

The PGA paired Nicklaus, Watson and Arnold Palmer together for the opening two rounds. Golf World likened the gallery to "a Tuesday crowd in Hartford."

Then there was Thursday's leaderboard situation, and it had nothing to do with the host of 80s turned in by the world's best players. To the shock of tournament volunteers manning the giant floating scoreboard next to the 18th green, someone at the PGA National resort had hired a blond, 18-year-old bikini-clad model in heels to row out to the leaderboard. Her job was to enhance the leading scores in a Vanna White sort of way.

The dreadful 1987 championship was PGA Chief Executive Jim Awtrey's first as head of the national organization for club professionals. Awtrey has since led the PGA back to revered venues while improving the overall operations of the championship.

There have been hiccups along the way, however.

Shoal Creek in 1990 was marred by controversy over the club's all-white membership policy. Awful greens and small crowds that resented the PGA's $65 weekend admission price marred Riviera in 1995. Then there was Valhalla in 1996, a new venue slipped in between Inverness, Southern Hills, Riviera and Winged Foot.

Since the PGA of America took an ownership stake in Valhalla and vowed to bring PGAs and Ryder Cups there, players and media members arrived at the remote site outside Louisville, Ky., with little enthusiasm.

Then, in setting up the Jack Nicklaus designed-layout for the 1996 event, the par-five seventh hole's interesting alternate fairway option was marked out of bounds in favor of a concession stand that was never erected.

"I went over there to get a hot dog and there wasn't any place to get one," Nicklaus said during the tournament.

The initial Valhalla experience was not helped by the peculiar sudden-death playoff between eventual winner Mark Brooks and Kenny Perry, who spent the time after his round in the CBS booth instead of preparing for a possible playoff. Perry ended up pocketing his ball on the playoff hole after five strokes left him an eight-footer for bogey.

Still, Valhalla showed promise that would be realized when the PGA returned four years later.

"The hills, trees, sand, water and dangerous options more than make up for the fact that it looks in places as if it came out of Jack and Barbara's Bent and Limestone Boutique," Jenkins wrote.

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