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Month Ahead - August

By: Tony Dear


Just how do you evaluate a tournament's prestige? Is it history, prize money, quality of the field or venue, or a mix of all of them? These are questions golfers north of the border have been asking for decades, especially since the weekend following the 104th playing of the Canadian Open - now the RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) Canadian Open, of course, which didn't attract terribly large galleries and which no one other than Brandt Snedeker or Hunter Mahan is likely to remember for long.

An argument has emerged that, were it not for the fact the once-great championship has been played so often (26 times) at Glen Abbey - a rather docile, flavorless Jack Nicklaus design 25 miles west of Toronto, it would still attract a consistently great field and not have to rely on the admittedly impressive roster of RBC-sponsored players to make it marketable.

Respected voices are insisting that had the country's classic courses - Royal Montreal, Hamilton, St. George's, Shaughnessy, etc. - hosted the event, it would not now be regarded as just another stop on the PGA Tour offering players a big payday, and anticipated about as strongly as a Reno-Tahoe Open or Sanderson Farms Championship. It makes you wonder how long it would take for the Open Championship to lose its preeminence if the R&A decided to take it to East Sussex National, Celtic Manor or, God forbid, the Belfry.

All this brings into question the status of the PGA Championship, which will be played next week at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Besides its 97-year history, the PGA owes its position among the four majors to Arnold Palmer who, during a conversation with journalist Bob Drum in 1960, listed it along with the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship as one of the tournaments he most wanted to win.

The conversation went public and, before long, Palmer's selections had become established as the titles to capture. The PGA's designation - as well as that of the other three - is therefore totally unofficial and, in theory, open to scrutiny at any moment.

The vast majority of us have lived in a world in which the current majors have always been regarded as the "Grand Slam" events. But long before Palmer and Drum had their conversation, a handful of other tournaments were considered similarly important. Half of Bobby Jones's "Impregnable Quadrilateral" in 1930 was made up of amateur events - the Amateur Championship (Britain) and the U.S. Amateur.

The North and South Open, which was played at Pinehurst from 1902 to 1951, boasted a list of winners - including Alec Ross (six times), Sam Snead (three), Ben Hogan (three), Walter Hagen (three), Jim Barnes (two), Byron Nelson, Cary Midddlecoff, and Mac Smith - every bit as notable as that of the modern majors. And the Western Open, first played in 1899, was likewise a very big deal during its early days.

Golf, like everything else in life, evolves. But will it evolve sufficiently for the make-up of the Grand Slam tournaments to change, or will Palmer's classification be honored forevermore? Will there always be four majors? Could time, player indifference and public consensus conspire to see the PGA dropped from the inner circle, the holiest of holies? Or could a fifth tournament join their elevated ranks? Could it be that in 50 years' time Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament, Palmer's Bay Hill event, the Players Championship, the BMW Championship in England (formerly known as the British PGA), or even perhaps the Australian Open or Canadian Open be given the rank and station many believe they deserve?

And who would decide? If Tiger Woods were to have a private conversation with Golf Digest's Dan Jenkins (unlikely I know) and casually mention that the Memorial was now as important to him as the PGA, actually more so, would it then be graded differently? Or if Phil Mickelson's newfound love of links golf and Castle Stuart continued to swell, and he let it slip in a Golf Channel interview with Tim Rosaforte that he really loved to win the Scottish Open more than any other tournament (he might have won three U.S. Opens by this stage) would its standing need to be reassessed?

None of this is to suggest a change is necessary or, indeed, imminent. It absolutely goes without saying, the PGA is worthy of great respect and still coveted by the players. But it's also true it is seen as the least among equals, and that its status has been questioned over the years, partly because of the occasionally unexceptional venue - Kemper Lakes, Crooked Stick, Shoal Creek, partly because of its occasionally unexceptional winners - Shaun Micheel, Mark Brooks, Rich Beem, Wayne Grady, and partly because the organization that runs it believes a ghastly catchphrase - "Glory's Last Shot" - is necessary to distinguish it from the regular PGA Tour events it closely resembles.

Whatever the tournament's future though, the 2013 PGA Championship is most certainly a major, and the winner will be afforded the recognition his victory merits.

The last time Oak Hill, designed in 1924 by Alec Ross's brother Donald, staged a major was in 2008 when the 69th Senior PGA Championship was played over a course several of the players described as brutal and one member of the press said was "unmercifully stingy." Jay Haas won with a 72-hole total of 7-over 287, earning some level of payback for the misery he had suffered during the Ryder Cup 13 years before when he made a hash of the 18th hole to lose his singles match to Phillip Walton, who earned Europe the winning point.

The last regular Tour major at Oak Hill was the 2003 PGA, won by Shaun Micheel with a brilliant 7-iron to a couple of inches at the 72nd hole. The surprise victory was the Florida native's one and only win on the PGA Tour to date and, with all due respect, terminated the East Course's run of elite winners. Curtis Strange won his second consecutive U.S. Open here in 1989, Jack Nicklaus claimed his 17th major win at the 1980 PGA Championship, Lee Trevino won his first major - and indeed his first PGA Tour victory, at the 1968 U.S. Open, and Cary Middlecoff beat Ben Hogan and Julius Boros by a shot to win the U.S. Open in 1956.

It's difficult, that is to say impossible, to predict whether the winner of this year's PGA Championship will have a Micheel-type record or already own multiple major trophies. The course will measure only 29 yards longer than it did 10 years ago, so while a Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or Adam Scott victory is obviously far more likely, it's not unreasonable to suggest a Graham DeLaet, Matt Every or Chris Stroud could win.

Before the year's fourth major, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational returns to Firestone, where Woods will be looking for an incredible eighth win on the South Course, and Keegan Bradley will be defending the title he won last year with a final-round 64. Following the PGA Championship, the PGA Tour visits Sedgefield CC in North Carolina, another Donald Ross course, for the regular season's final event, the Wyndham Championship that Sergio Garcia won 12 months ago.

August ends with the first of the FedEx Cup Playoffs - the Barclays at Liberty National, and the start of the second - the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. Woods currently holds a 278-point lead over Matt Kuchar in the standings and is on course for his third win in the season-long contest, but much can change with so many points available over the next few weeks.

The LPGA Tour begins the month at the "Home of Golf," where Inbee Park will try to win her fourth straight major this year and claim what some are insisting is the women's Grand Slam. Because there are four majors on the men's tour, four Grand Slam events in tennis, and perhaps because it's worth four runs in baseball, the term "grand slam" is associated with the number four.

But it comes from the card game Contact Bridge, in which a player has to win all 13 tricks to complete a grand slam. Because the Evian Masters has been declared a major, there is now a total of five on the women's schedule, so Park would need to win in France next month for it to be the genuine article. Whatever you call it though, if she were to win this week on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where Lorena Ochoa won the Ricoh Women's British Open for her first major victory in 2007, it would be the greatest achievement in the history of the women's game and perhaps rank alongside the Tiger Slam that Woods recorded by winning the last three majors of 2000 and the '01 Masters.

Twelve days after the Women's British Open, the top-24 players from each side of the Atlantic will meet for the 13th playing of the Solheim Cup, where the U.S. team will begin as strong favorites. The odds for the Americans have, in fact, been quoted as low as 4-7 to win at Colorado GC. But they were a similarly unprofitable 2-5 in 2011 at Killeen Castle in Ireland, where the Europeans won six and halved two of the Sunday singles to win the match 15-13.

The men's biennial transatlantic team competition will also be a part of the conversation this month when the European Tour's Johnnie Walker Championship is played on the Gleneagles Hotel's PGA Centenary Course, venue for next year's Ryder Cup.

Majors, WGCs, team competitions - it's another exciting month for golf fans. As if we haven't had enough of those already this year.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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