The last time the P.G.A. Championship was held at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, Rory McIlroy entered the final round with a three-shot lead over the field, but the former P.G.A. champions Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington and Tiger Woods were giving chase.
That week in August 2012 had been full of drama. Winds during Friday’s second round gusted to 30 miles per hour. A thunderstorm on Saturday had left about a third of the players having to finish their rounds on Sunday morning, including McIlroy.
When the final round got underway, McIlroy shot a bogey-free round of six under par. Some players made a charge on Sunday that cut into his lead, but he won the tournament walking away.
With an eight-shot buffer, McIlroy beat a stacked field that succumbed to the course. He also set a record for margin of victory, besting the one set by Jack Nicklaus when he won his fifth P.G.A. Championship in 1980.
That is exactly the kind of excitement the P.G.A. of America seeks when it selects a course for its major championship. It wants a bunch of players to have a chance to win, but it’s also happy if one player puts on a master class and pulls away from everyone else.
“Our philosophy is we want someone to win it, not lose it,” said Seth Waugh, chief executive of the P.G.A. of America, which holds the P.G.A. Championship and the Ryder Cup. “We want birdies and eagles and bogeys and others. We’re not trying to create a torture test. That’s not what we try to do.”
The 16th hole at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina.Credit…Gary Kellner/The PGA of America, via Getty Images
Looking back on the scores of courses that have hosted P.G.A. Championships, this tournament is more enigmatic than the other three majors when it comes to a defining template for its courses.
The Masters is at Augusta National Golf Club every spring (not the fall, as it was in 2020), with all eyes on the back nine on Sunday. There players fall in and out of contention with dizzying speed as they did this year, when it looked as if the eventual winner, Hideki Matsuyama, was faltering as Xander Schauffele was surging, only to have everything flip again.
The British Open is played at a fairly set rotation of courses, but the winning score is as dependent on the weather — particularly the wind — as it is on the course itself. Winning scores at the Old Course at St. Andrews, for example, have ranged widely. Woods won there in 2000 at 19 under par. Five years earlier, John Daly won at six under. The most recent Open at St. Andrews was won by Zach Johnson at 15 under par.
And then there’s the golf course that hosts the United States Open. How the United States Golf Association, which administers the U.S. Open, sets up the course is often the subject of debate. Complaints are legendary: The greens at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and 2018 were so fast and the pins were placed in such difficult locations that some of the best players in the world called the course unplayable. They included Phil Mickelson, who in 2018 hit a putt while it was still rolling to keep it on the green. (He incurred a two-shot penalty.)
So what makes a course worthy of the P.G.A. Championship? It’s easy to say what the courses are not — overly tight, unforgiving or predictable — but it’s harder to say what they share in common.
A look at the courses that have hosted the championship doesn’t, on its face, paint the same picture of consistency as the other major championships.
A relatively short Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, N.Y., hosted the first P.G.A. Championship in 1916. Oakmont Country Club, considered by the sport to be the toughest course in America and synonymous with the U.S. Open, hosted a P.G.A. Championship in 1922, five years before its first of nine U.S. Opens. Classic courses like Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.; Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y.; and Oakland Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., have hosted P.G.A. Championships and U.S. Opens.
Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., and Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., have hosted regular PGA Tour events as well as the P.G.A. Championships. And some now obscure courses have also held the tournament, including Seaview Golf Club in Galloway, N.J., and Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania.
“The list of P.G.A. Championship courses is kind of uneven, but in a cool and fun way,” said Tom Coyne, who played golf in all 50 states, including at every U.S. Open venue, for his new book “A Course Called America: Fifty States, Five Thousand Fairways, and the Search for the Great American Golf Course.”
“There are those mainstays that go back and forth between the U.S. Open and the P.G.A. like Baltusrol, Oakland Hills and Southern Hills,” he said. “Then there are those you wouldn’t even know hosted a P.G.A. Championship, like Llanerch Country Club. I had no idea it hosted the 1958 championship, and I grew up playing at a club 10 miles down the road.”
Coyne said one distinguishing factor in course selection might be the history of the organizations themselves. Both the U.S.G.A. and the R&A, which puts on the British Open, are the official arbitrators of the rules of golf. Rodman Wanamaker, whose wealth came from owning department stores, was one of the founders of the P.G.A. of America, which began in 1916 as a trade organization for professional golfers.
“The P.G.A. is less bound by the history of golf. You’re going to have people saying this isn’t a U.S. Open course,” Coyne said about clubs chosen to host the event, “but they’re not going to say this isn’t a P.G.A. course.”
One thing that stands out is the P.G.A. of America’s having embraced Pete and Alice Dye, among the 20th century’s most important golf architects, whose courses illicit strong emotions. While some players enjoy them as a stern test of golf, others find that the courses seem to punish even good shots.
Whistling Straits, a Dye-designed course in Kohler, Wis., got its first P.G.A. Championship in 2004. M.G. Orender was the president of the P.G.A. of America at the time. He said the selection might have seemed like a departure for the organization, but it was really a recognition of the historical standing of the Dyes.
“Dye built courses that have stood the test of time,” Orender said of Whistling Straits and Kiawah. “He’s no different than Donald Ross, Seth Raynor or A.W. Tillinghast.” Those last three are considered among the best golden age architects, with courses that regularly host championships.
The first P.G.A. Championship at a Dye course was Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., in 1991 — won by John Daly.
If there’s one other thing that drives the location of a P.G.A. Championship, it’s the desire to share the courses among the P.G.A. of America’s 41 governing areas, which represent club and teaching pros.
“When we pick golf courses, because we’re the P.G.A. of America, we represent golf at every level,” Waugh said. “Each of our sections also takes enormous pride in hosting a championship.”
Several of the P.G.A. Championship courses have been at clubs that hold regular tour events, but the PGA Tour — a different entity from the P.G.A. of America — sets them up. For the P.G.A. Championship, the course can be set up however Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer at the P.G.A., wants it to be.
“The reason we’re going to these venues is they’re already great golf courses,” he said before the 2019 championship at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y.
His job in setting up the championship is to make “minor tweaks and suggestions,” Haigh said. “We try to bring out the great features of any golf course.”
Still, Waugh stressed that the connective tissues among the courses is an exciting finish. “I can’t tell you if the winning score is going to be five under or five over or 20 under,” he said about this year’s tournament. “But the course will be fair, and it will be fun, and we hope there’s a playoff at the end.”