How to Make the PGA Championship Interesting

When you hear “The Masters,” do you not find images of azaleas and Amen Corner dancing before you, while taking heart in the unmistakable approach of spring?

When you hear “The U.S. Open,” don’t you immediately think of painfully narrow fairways bounded by absurdly high rough leading to sadistically fast greens, with a climactic Father’s Day finish?

When you hear “The British Open,” or simply “The Open,” do your thoughts not turn instantly to wind and gorse and Seve making birdie from a parking lot?

But what do the words “PGA Championship” bring to mind?  Take your time; I’ll wait.

Just as I thought.  Those steeped in golf lore may think of Walter Hagen or Gene Sarazen, who reigned back in the days when professionals were generally considered members of the servant class and the Grand Slam comprised two amateur and two open championship competitions. For anyone else, the PGA tournament is mostly a sign that summer is beginning its retreat in the northern hemisphere, so that we’d all be well advised to squeeze in as many rounds as possible and not fritter away our weekends watching golf on television.

In a burst of public-spiritedness, I hereby offer the PGA of America a simple way to make this poor relation of a tournament compelling viewing: Require all competitors to use clubs and balls made to circa 1970 specifications. This means steel shafts, forged blades, persimmon woods and balata balls.

Why, you rightly ask, would anyone want to watch today’s professional golfers employ the outmoded implements of a bygone era? The reason is quite simple: to let us see exactly how today’s golfers compare to the players of the era of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson. It would not be difficult to set up a course such as Baltusrol to the specifications of the 1967 Open, when Jack Nicklaus shot his record score of 275 in a duel with Arnold Palmer. Wouldn’t you be curious to see how Tiger would fare relative to the man he yearns to overtake as the greatest golfer ever, using the same type of equipment on the same basic course? Wouldn’t that be far more compelling to watch than what is now not much more than the John Deere Classic held at a more exclusive venue?

Sports fans love to debate the relative abilities of today’s players vs. the stars of the past, but that is not generally possible. Today’s baseball players can only play against their contemporaries. There is no way to determine if pitchers and hitters are better on average today than they were in Hank Aaron’s time, because baseball statistics are essentially zero-sum. This is not the case in golf, where each player is tested against the course itself. Recreate the conditions of old and the players of yesterday and today can be compared directly.

What 1972 Hogan Apex iron would Tiger use for his approach on Number 18 at Merion? I, for one, would love to find out.

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