Almanac Golf: PGA Golf Championship Preview and the Rise of Quality Independent Journalism

This weekend is the second of the four Major Championships of men’s professional golf. It’s being played at the Ocean course at Kiawah Island resort in South Carolina.


Golf is different from other sports in that the course design and conditions and the weather are as much a factor in winning as the other players in the field. Like a football match played in a Gabba thunderstorm or a cricket Test on an English greentop or an Indian dustbowl. Global warming and modern turf management mean these are now rare occurrences, but golf courses are too large and open to be as uniformly controlled.


The PGA is very much the runt of the Major litter behind the British Open; US Masters and US Open. Australians Jason Day, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady, David Graham (who also won a US Open) and Jim Ferrier (1947) all won a PGA Championship.


PGA is the Professional Golfers of America – the body that covers the 0.01% of players good enough to teach the game and run the shops on golf courses.  They are now separate to the PGA  Tour – the 150 players with a Tour card who compete in weekly tournaments for an annual prize pool of US$430 million. Nice work if you can get it.


So the PGA Tour is the commercial monolith run by and for the 0.0001%. But money can’t buy you history and prestige so for 4 weeks a year they chafe without a tournament as the founding organisations of the game run their individual Majors.


To add to the confusion the PGA is also Professional Golfers of Australia which is separate to Golf Australia – the governing body of the game here. And my first set of clubs 50 years ago were stamped PGF which I thought meant a professional golfer made them. Later I found out Precision Golf Forging was an Australian club manufacturer name (which still survives).


Don’t think golf is a confusing game run like a secret society with strange names, rituals and multiple barriers to entry?


Back to this week’s championship, the PGA is being played on a coastal, linksy style of course that is rare in America. Golf was founded on the “links land” of Scotland.  The coastal dunes wasteland that linked the arable farm land to the ocean but had no commercial value. Rolling wind blown shapes that could be easily moulded; held together by coastal grasses and quick draining in the heavy rains of the UK. The British Open courses all date back to the 19th century, and suitable land was found more than manufactured.


Most US courses are inland, tree lined, lush and soft. Golf course design and maintenance is another part of the sporting-industrial complex of country club golf.  Players ride carts rather than walk and hit high ‘target golf” shots to soft greens; whereas the game’s UK origins were more a ground game.


The design of the Ocean Course and the renaissance in US golf design is largely down to Pete Dye. Post-WW2 US course design was industrial scale brutalism with an eye on surrounding property development. Dye (who died last year) had a business head that appealed to owners but the soul of an artist. The recent trend back minimalist strategic design has been led by Dye proteges like Bill Coore and Tom Doak who both worked on Australia’s best modern courses at Barnbougle in Tasmania.


Just as the game of professional golf has become more bland, homogenous and commodified by the dominance of commercial influences like equipment manufacturers so has broadcast media coverage. “Don’t bite – or even question – the hand that feeds you” is as true of Golf Channel as Channel 7 and AFL.


That has created a niche market for critical voices in golf either made redundant or mute in their previous mass media lives.


Much of my knowledge of Pete Dye and Kiawah comes from The Fried Egg, founded by architecture nerd and good amateur player Andy Johnson. He has built a small network of podcasts, web blogs and associates who intelligently and entertainingly critique the modern game. Some are short and witty. They have pioneered the long form audio documentary that combines interviews with music and historical tape to tell a story.


This link includes the story of the building of the Ocean Course at Kiawah.


In short the PGA had a contract with a golf property developer to play the 1991 Ryder Cup (the biennial team competition between USA and Europe) at one of their courses. The plan was for a new PGA West in the desert at Palm Springs. The trouble was the pros hated it first time they played there and threatened a boycott. Also, it was going to be 110F at Ryder Cup time. PGA tried to get out of contract but faced huge legal penalties.


Developer said we’ve bought a resort on coast in South Carolina and plan to add a championship course. We’ll get a Pete Dye design. It’s 1987 and there’s a very tight timeline to get a new course established in 4 years. Then in 1989 the biggest hurricane in 100 years floods the course and knocks over every tree. The upside is they are able to break every planning and environmental requirement because government is preoccupied with basic community infrastructure reconstruction.


In the end it all comes together and the 1991 “War on the Shore” is the first Ryder Cup network televised live in the US and cements it in US sporting consciousness.  Necessity creates opportunity.


There is a free daily newsletter with all the news you need to know about pro golf (daily at Majors time and twice weekly otherwise). Click here or subscribe to get if free in your inbox.


At a more substantive level you can pay A$8 a month to get Geoff Shackelord’s The Quadrilateral newsletter. Geoff is a golf course architect, journalist and critical voice who knows all the decision makers and where the bodies are buried in the pro game. He broke the initial story about Saudi money (US$30 million each up front) for the game’s top players to break away and join a made for TV Golf Premier/Super League.  A story familiar to many Australians from cricket and rugby leagues breakaway competitions.  And that preceded by a few months the stalled (but not demised) the European football Super League.


Geoff partnered with Australian golf journalist Rod Morri and course designer Mike Clayton on their pioneering podcast State of the Game. Rod’s Talkin Golf network has several other shows that focus on different aspects of the game.  The Good-Good Golf podcast is great on social and community golf issues like public course closures, female participation and environmental impacts.


The Quadrilateral focuses on the four men’s Majors and the Ryder Cup rather than the weekly dross of the PGA Tour.  Geoff offers both his own pithy opinions and curates selections of what you need to know and other insightful reading about the big issues in the big tournaments.


His PGA Championship preview and Round 1 summary are here.


You can subscribe for free to emails and Geoff makes some content available free to build his subscriber base. Highly recommended if you don’t want to just swallow the fan boy pap served up by Foxtel and the Golf Channel.


My pre-tournament pick for best Australian chance is Queensland’s Cam Smith who has a solid Majors record as a gritty competitor untroubled by pressure.  He has one of the best short games in pro golf which will be valuable if the wind gets up and dries the course out further making precision shots to hard greens way more difficult.  The ability to get up and down from difficult positions around the greens could be priceless in the final rounds.



The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE



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  1. Kevin Densley says

    Good one, PB.

    Who would’ve picked Mickelson to win and Jason Scrivener to be the highest-placed Aussie?

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