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PGA Championship 101: History, qualifications and this year at Southern Hills

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Take a look at some answers to frequently asked questions about the PGA Championship:

Still holding down the second spot?

Correct. The PGA Championship moved from the major finale in August to the second of the season in May, in 2019. Then 2020 came and the golf calendar was reorganized because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PGA was contested again in August, after the U.S. Open and ahead of the Masters. Things returned to order last year and, again this year and for the foreseeable future, the PGA of America's crown jewel sits in in its rightful spot in spring.

Wait, isn't this the championship of the PGA Tour?

Sigh. No, this is not the championship of the PGA Tour. That would be considered The Players Championship. This is the championship of the PGA of America.

Why the need to designate “of America”? What else would it be  the PGA of Timbuktu?

Obviously we need a history lesson here. We'll keep it as brief as possible. There used to be one PGA – the "of America" one, which was founded in 1916. In 1968, action was begun that resulted in an eventual split into the PGA of America and the PGA Tour. 

Why the split?

The original golf pros were the people who work at golf clubs. You know, the ones who sell us logoed ball markers and take our green fees when they're not trying to cure our slices by giving us lessons. The better players among them also played the national tournament circuit.

As golf grew in popularity and tournaments became more lucrative, a class of pros evolved who were tournament players first and foremost. If they held a club job, it was often ceremonial.

Over time, more of these pros discarded the idea of working at a club at all, instead devoting full time to tournament play.

OK, I follow you so far.

So now you had one organization, the PGA of America, trying to represent the interests of two entirely different types of "golf pros." No surprise that the root of the dispute was money, specifically what to do with what was becoming a windfall in rights fees from the TV networks. The tournament players, a group that included Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, wanted that money to go to increased tournament purses, while the club pros wanted it to go into the PGA's general fund. Eventually the touring pros broke off on their own. The PGA of America remained in place, representing the traditional "club" pros.

If the PGA of America was no longer going to represent the interests of tournament players, why does it still have a championship? And why is it a major?

It wanted to keep the PGA Championship alive for many reasons, not the least of which is that it generates considerable revenue. As for your second question, that is a big ol' can of worms for another day. We will say this, however. For most of the PGA Championship's existence, it has had a justifiable status as a major. Whether that will ever change, whether it will ever be replaced in the major rotation by The Players Championship is anyone's guess. But golf is a game that respects – and clings to – tradition.

Anything else about its history that sets it apart?

The most obvious thing is that from its inception in 1916 through 1957, the PGA was a match-play tournament. It has been periodically suggested that it return to match play, but that is not considered likely. Prior to the shift to May in 2019, it was previously held during this month in 1949, when Sam Snead won.

We get the May thing, but why no longer match play?

Worst-case scenario – all the highly seeded "name" players get eliminated before the final. If you're a TV network that has spent big bucks to televise this event, do you want two guys you're never heard of in the final?

Speaking of the final, what's the name of the winner's trophy?

It's called the Wanamaker Trophy, and it was named after Rodman Wanamaker, a department store magnate who was influential in the formation of the PGA.

How does a player qualify for this major?

There are 13 ways:

  • Each former PGA champion.
  • The last five Masters winners.
  • The last five U.S. Open winners.
  • The last five Open Championship winners.
  • The last three Players Championship winners.
  • The Senior PGA champion.
  • The low 15 scorers and ties in the last PGA Championship.
  • The 20 low scorers in the previous PGA Professional Championship.
  • The top 70 in money standings on the PGA Tour (from a week before the previous year's PGA Championship to two weeks before this year's PGA Championship).
  • Players from the most recent U.S. and European Ryder Cup teams, as long as they're  in the top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking as of May 9.
  • Any tournament winner co-sponsored or sanctioned by the PGA Tour since the last PGA Championship.
  • The PGA of America can invite additional players not included in the categories listed above.
  • The total field is no more than 156 players. Players beneath 70th place in official money standings can also receive an invite.

I probably should have asked this a lot earlier, but what does PGA stand for?

Professional Golfers' Association. Remember, in the early years of the 20th century, pros were looked down upon. It was only natural that they band together under one umbrella organization.

Let's get to the tournament itself. The Masters has Jack Nicklaus winning at age 46 in 1986 and Tiger Woods' remarkable turns in '97 and '19. The U.S. Open has 20-year-old Francis Ouimet upsetting two of the top British pros in 1913 and Arnold Palmer's charge in 1960. The Open Championship has the Duel in the Sun in 1977 and  Woods destroying the field in 2000. So, what have been the most memorable PGAs?

It would be hard to beat a then-unknown John Daly winning in 1991. He got into the tournament as ninth – ninth! – alternate, then just torched the course with a combination of absurdly long driving and incredible touch around the greens. Then there was Bob Tway holing a final-hole bunker shot to beat Greg Norman in 1986 – something we didn't yet know would become a trend. And who could have predicted that the player who would give Woods his toughest test would be one of his former junior-golf rivals, Bob May, who did everything except beat him in 2000? And, of course, there was last year.

What happened last year?

Phil Mickelson, on the cusp of 51 years old, became the oldest major champion in history in winning at Kiawah Island. He shared the 36-hole lead, led by one through 54 holes and then held off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen to capture his sixth career major title (and second PGA, 2005).

Ah, so Mickelson is the defending champion?

Um, well, not exactly. He's the reigning champion, but he's not defending. Before you ask why, we'll explain. Mickelson took a self-imposed exile from the game in February after making disparaging comments about the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which Mickelson has been linked to in relation to a rival league. He has not since competed and informed the PGA of America on the Friday before championship week that he would not return to defend his title.

Has that ever happened before?

We're going to assume you mean a player not attempting to defend a major title and not the specifics as to why. Yes, it has. Most recently on the men's side, Rory McIlroy missed his 2015 Open defense after injuring himself in a kickabout. Twice before, a player has not defended at the PGA Championship, but both were because of physical reasons. Woods missed in 2008 while recovering from knee surgery, and Ben Hogan didn't play in 1949 while recovering from his car getting struck by a bus.

Well, OK, then. Changing subjects: Who has won the most PGA Championships?

Nicklaus and Walter Hagen have each won five times. Woods has won four times. Woods has twice won back-to-back in this major, in 1999-2000 and 2006-07.

Where are they playing?

Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This venue has previously hosted four PGA Championships (2007, 1994, 1982, 1970). Woods won the last time the PGA rolled into town and he'll be back this year as he continues his return from a single-vehicle crash in February 2021.