The conceit of a U.S. Open setup conjures passionate, opinionated responses. For better or worse—as of late, a lean towards “worse”—it is as much of the tournament’s narrative as the field.
The PGA of America, meanwhile. goes to great lengths to ensure setups at the PGA Championships aren’t quite as interesting. It eschews the spotlight, preferring the players serve as frontmen while the course provides backdrop.
“It is their major championship,” Kerry Haigh, chief championship officer of the PGA of America, said last year. “We want to showcase the best players in the world on great golf courses. I don’t really want to talk about it (course setup) because we are not the story.”
PGA Championship venues aren’t contrived for the pursuit of an arbitrary winning score. Haigh and the PGA of America play the cards dealt by the course. If anything, one could make the criticism the organization errs on the side of caution, leaving setups that resemble what’s regularly seen on the PGA Tour.
“I’m not saying there’s no strategy. I’m not saying that,” Pat Perez said at Bellerive last year. “I’m just saying it’s—you know, it’s not—it’s a big course, and there’s only really one way to play it. Try to hit as far as you can and hit the fairway and try to attack the pins when the greens are soft. That’s kind of what it is.”
While the U.S. Open fits a certain profile—a dive into past champions shows emphasis on driving accuracy, second-shot performance and bogey avoidance—there are few, if any, points of consistency when reviewing what spurs success at the PGA Championship, save for making as many birdies as possible, with six of the seven past winning scores reaching double-digit red figures.
It’s not just a recent trend. Since 2002, the average winning score in relation to par at the PGA Championship is 10.52 under. For context, that’s seven strokes higher than average winning score at the U.S. Open (3.35); subtract the 16-under aberrations at Congressional and Erin Hills, the figure drops to 1.66 under.
Admittedly, the disparity can’t be chalked up to ideology alone. There’s a stigma, perhaps undeservedly so, that the quality of PGA courses is slightly below that of the U.S. Open. It’s not that Bellerive, Quail Hollow, or Valhalla are bad tracks; they’re just not Shinnecock, Oakmont or Winged Foot.
Which is what makes this year’s Wanamaker host a compelling study.
Bethpage Black is not first course to host both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship; that list is long and distinguished. However, most of these venerable sites have gone decades between hosting duties (63 years, to be exact, from Pinehurst’s 1936 PGA to its 1999 U.S. Open). Given the radical changes to how the game is played, a comparison of a course’s U.S. Open setup to its PGA layout is often a fool’s errand.
In fact, only three courses have held both in the last 25 years: Winged Foot, Oakland Hills and Southern Hills, with just the last of those three hosting each tournament in this millennium.
Winged Foot, 1997 PGA Championship: 269 (winning margin: five strokes, 73.122)
Winged Foot, 2006 U.S. Open: 285 (winning margin one stroke, 74.993)
Southern Hills, 2007 PGA Championship: 272 (winning margin: two strokes, 73.016)
Southern Hills, 2001 U.S. Open: 276 (playoff, 73.271)
Oakland Hills, 2008 PGA Championship: 277 (winning margin: two strokes, 74.315)
Oakland Hills, 1996 U.S. Open: 278 (winning margin: one stroke, 73.160)
Bringing us to Bethpage Black, hosting the PGA Championship for the first time. Reputed as one of the toughest tests in the sport, the Black course proved its mettle at the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open, holding players to 74.901(+4.901) and 72.928 scoring average, scores that ranked as the highest on tour in each respective season.
What gives the Black its beastly spirit is rather elementary, at least compared to other challenging tests. Shinnecock requires nuance, strategy and creativity; discipline and short-game prowess are the methodology at Oakmont. Bethpage? Hit it long, hit it straight and hit the greens. Tiger Woods, en route to winning the 2002 U.S. Open, hit a tournament-best 73.61 greens in regulation versus the event average of 50.64, found 73.21 fairways against the field’s 59.13 percentage, and boasted an average driving distance of 280.5 yards to the field’s 265.5 mark. Same deal for Lucas Glover, winner of the 2009 U.S. Open: 291.1 yards off the tee to the competition’s 273-yard average, 72.22 GIR versus the field’s 58.52 figure, and a 71.3 fairway percentage compared to the field’s 63.57 performance.
That may seem like an oversimplification of the game plan, but aspirations easier said than done. Even by major championship standards, the rough at the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens was brutally thick. Making matters worse for those finding the high stuff was wet terrain, both tournaments victim to rainy weeks. And while second-shot prowess has been found to be a catalyst at most tournaments, the relatively-flat nature of Bethpage’s green complexes—coupled with deep, punishing bunkers and aforementioned rough surrounding them—puts an extra emphasis on the approach game.
Yet, as noted above, the PGA Championship has historically facilitated lower scoring than the U.S. Open. So what awaits the 2019 PGA Championship field?
According to Andy Wilson, Bethpage’s director of agronomy, there will be a handful of course changes compared to 2009, particularly with the contours of the greens.
“The 11th green has a new extension back left that offers several more pin placements,” Wilson, who was also on staff for the 2002 and 2009 Opens, said. “That will be fun to see.”
Four other greens—the second, third, 14th and 15th—have also been rebuilt. The second and 14th have remained similar, Wilson remarked, and the slopes at the third have slightly changed. “On the 15th for the Opens I believe the pins were back right almost every day due to the severity of the green,” he said. “So the slope from back to front was softened a bit so we can have a front pin position and use the entire upper level for hole locations as well.”
The 18th hole underwent a renovation. It has been somewhat anticlimactic at the Opens, with players hitting an iron off the tee to avoid the fairway bunkers. So the fairway was widened closer to the green and two bunkers were placed on the right side of the start of the fairway, in hopes of putting a driver back into play.
The biggest change? Bethpage hosting a month earlier in the calendar.
“With the new May date, the course will be very healthy and lush and will provide terrific playing conditions and with the likelihood of cooler temperatures and the possibility of more wind in May,” Haigh said.
A calm and wet winter provided ideal for course conditioning, and though some of the trees are still on the early side of leafing out (with a few not having any leaves at all), Bethpage will be in peak form.
“We have cool season grasses like poa, ryegrass (tees, fairways, rough) and poa/bent greens which all do very well this time of year,” Wilson said. “There will be some seedheads out there from poa on rough and other surfaces.”
If players are expecting any expecting any type of leniency from the Opens, the rough is not expected be as long as it was in 2002 and 2009. However, Wilson said, aside from the 18th, the fairway widths are almost exactly the same as they were in 2009.
But, as Haigh pointed out, perhaps the most vital component is out of their hands. “So much of how a course plays is dictated by the weather,” Haigh said.
Both the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens were besieged by stormy weather, and judging by the early forecasts, much of the same may be in store this year. Which can present its own difficulties, yet also make the course more vulnerable to low scores.
Nevertheless, both Haigh and Wilson insist the course will be a demanding, yet fair, exam. “The course will be presented at the highest standard we have,” Wilson said. Added Haigh: “It will certainly test the best field in golf.”
Compared to the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship has been a birdie-fest, its score board painted in red. But for those wondering if Bethpage awaits a similar fate, expect its infamous first-tee “WARNING” sign to ring true.