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PGA Championship on Bethpage Black has major interest

A PGA flag on the 9th green at

A PGA flag on the 9th green at Bethpage Black Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

For decades, the misunderstood and underappreciated PGA Championship was just sitting there in August, waiting to benefit from a huge buildup. As the fourth major in the calendar year, and ranked fourth of four in golfers’ hearts, it would finally have leaped off the charts if anyone had swept all of the season’s first three majors.

That never happened. But now that it has moved to May, up from batting cleanup to No. 2 in the majors’ order, it finally gets its day in the sun.

The tournament that used to bill itself as “Glory’s Last Shot” because of its spot in the calendar is getting first crack at basking in the glory from Tiger Woods’ stunning victory in the Masters last month.

When Woods tees it up at Bethpage Black this coming week, it will be his first event since his galvanizing performance at Augusta National, where he won his fifth green jacket with his first major title in 11 years. What an instant sequel it will be, going from one of the world’s most exclusive golf clubs to one of the game’s most public facilities. Having grown up playing public golf in Southern California, Woods will shoot for his 16th career major championship at a five-course state park that hosts 297,000 rounds a year.

It is a plot line beyond the loftiest dreams of the PGA of America, which moved its championship up three months.

“We thought it was smart,” said Seth Waugh, the association’s new chief executive officer. “It looks brilliant now.”

Waugh said that Woods’ comeback win at the Masters was more than a golf narrative. It had more of a moon-landing kind of vibe. You know, the sort of thing that makes people ask, “Where were you when you when it happened?”

The immediate segue asks, “What will Tiger do next?” The PGA Championship will be the first to say.

If any tournament deserved that kind of shot in the arm, it was this one. No junior golfer grows up imagining sinking a putt to win the PGA (possible exception: Justin Thomas, whose father and grandfather were PGA of America members and who was on hand as a youngster to see Woods win the 2000 PGA in Louisville).

To say the PGA is someone’s favorite major, above and beyond the Masters and U.S. and British Opens, is like saying George Costanza was the coolest of the Seinfeld four. Or like saying that John, Paul and George were decent singers, but Ringo was the greatest.

There was even speculation when Bethpage Black was awarded the 2019 PGA that it was the price the park had to pay to also host the 2024 Ryder Cup, which also is run by the PGA of America. Golf fans never have known quite what to make of the PGA Championship.

Serious followers, and pros themselves, sometimes seemed drained by August. Casual fans often assumed incorrectly that the event is affiliated with the PGA Tour. Tour players and club pros used to be under the same umbrella, but tour golfers parted ways in 1969. The PGA of America, the club pros’ group, kept custody of the major championship — plodding along, often in blistering late-summer heat, humidity and thunderstorms.

Kudos for trying a breath of fresh air with Bethpage Black, which also needed a boost. The course had been written off by the U.S. Golf Association, which brought the U.S. Open to the “People’s Country Club” in 2002 and 2009, but gave up after both of those June events were drenched in rain. Two PGA Tour playoff events at the Black, in August of 2012 and 2016, failed to draw.

When Ted Bishop, then president-in-waiting of the PGA of America, held an informal meeting with state park officials at Bethpage in 2010, he told Newsday, “The venue certainly lends itself well to hosting another major championship and I would hope the PGA of America would look at this as a potential venue for not only the PGA Championship but a Ryder Cup.” He made it happen when he got in office.

This is a clean slate for all concerned. It is a chance to show off the Black while the grass is still fresh. It is an opportunity to remind people that the PGA has been a heck of a tournament for years (John Daly gripping and ripping himself into stardom, Davis Love III putting under a rainbow, St. John’s alumnus Keegan Bradley breaking through). When pros tally their career major titles, the PGA counts just as much as the Masters or either Open.

So, the PGA doesn’t have an Amen Corner or a claret jug or the legacy of being called “the national championship.” Big deal. It might be fourth among four, but in terms of individual golf events, it is bigger than everything else.

This year, it figures to be as big as it ever has been.

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