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PGA is best in show if least popular major

Phil Mickelson reacts after missing an eagle putt

Phil Mickelson reacts after missing an eagle putt on the seventh hole during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At the end of golf's major season, here are some updated rankings: The Masters is the most beautiful and revered, the U.S. Open is the toughest test, the British Open has the most venerable tradition . . .

And the PGA Championship is the best show.

This is an annual argument made from this peanut stand, and it is not a sentiment widely shared in golf circles. It is like saying Millard Fillmore is your favorite president and Arbor Day is your favorite holiday. But if you really reflect on it, the PGA pretty much always gives us the kind of thrills it gave us Sunday -- and in 2000, the last time it was here at Valhalla Golf Club, with Tiger Woods, an all-time great, winning a taut playoff against Bob May, an all-time underdog.

The final round Sunday was an all-star international howler with the top player of the current day, Rory McIlroy, going up against 44-year-old Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson and a pair of elite golfers trying to finally break through, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson.

Plus, there was the added drama of the entire field trying to beat dusk. A delay of 1 hour, 54 minutes earlier in the afternoon -- when a torrent made the course look like the ark scenes in the movie "Noah" -- made it a race to see if they could get the round in before it got too dark. "No chance," Colin Montgomerie said after he finished his round earlier.

But the final two groups were trying to meet the challenge, like golfers who go out after work and try to squeeze in a round.

That part of it was unnecessary. The PGA of America and CBS insist on starting weekend rounds too late. Even with rain in the forecast, they refused to begin earlier. We know, we know, they're trying to get the widest possible audience, but they run the risk of getting badly burned. Consider the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, when Mickelson won in anticlimactic fashion on Monday morning. We can't imagine the ratings were so hot.

Speaking of which, there is a decent chance that you soon will hear that the ratings Sunday were not terrific. Big deal. That always happens when Woods is not in contention. It is part of the theory, widely held and often expressed here this week, that "golf needs Tiger Woods."

It might be true, depending on what you mean by "needs" and "golf."

To be sure, Woods' swing instructors and fellow tour pros, as well as the PGA Tour and rights-holders, certainly thrive because of Woods. He has made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

The game of golf that the rest of us play, though, is a different story. People are going to the course in fewer numbers, regardless of whether Woods is in the mix at majors.

As for "needs," are we talking about sheer survival? We shouldn't be. The sport isn't going out of business. Major championships have been held since the 1890s and have survived two World Wars and the Great Depression. They will keep going.

At this rate, the PGA is going to be the most entertaining. That is the way it has been for years, and it is no coincidence. It always has the best field and is generally held on good courses (Kiawah Island notwithstanding) that are set up to produce nice birdie chances down the stretch (something Augusta didn't do this year because it made the greens too slick). That is why the PGA gives you Woods vs. May, Keegan Bradley vs. Jason Dufner, and McIlroy vs. Mickelson vs. Fowler vs. Stenson.

The PGA is the least famous, the least popular of the four majors -- and the best show.

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