The fourth major of the season often throws up a previously unheralded player as a winner, writes Steve Elling.
Unpredictable times await at the US PGA Championship
It is not exactly a full-blown identity crisis, but the final major of the year surely has suffered from schizophrenic tendencies, over the years.
The images and underpinnings of the season's first three major championships are as indelible as a Sharpie signature on an official scorecard.
Yet this week's US PGA Championships occasionally shape-shifts and mixes in, all chameleon-like, and in the minds of some, the tournament's reputation and distinctness suffer as a result.
The Masters, of course, is played solely on the world's most-famous venue, Augusta National, festooned with azaleas, dogwoods and more final-round birdies and eagles than Audubon could count.
The US Open is a midsummer torture track, a battle of figurative nosebleeds and attrition designed to be the hardest test in golf.
The British Open, played on the world's most historic links, is a step back in time, with players hitting ad-libbed shots that few other courses require.
Indeed, the British Open is often played near a body of water called the Firth of Forth.
The PGA, the Fourth of Four majors, is part lagoon, partly meandering river and part mysterious Loch Ness. Depending on the year, of course.
"I think the identity of the PGA Championship changes quite often," Phil Mickelson said at this week's venue, Oak Hill Country Club in central New York ahead of today's opening round.
"At the PGA, sometimes we play modern courses like Valhalla and Whistling Straits, where you can shoot really low, and sometimes we play classic courses, like here, where it's more like a US Open set-up."
So much for carving out a niche. As a result, among myriad other reasons, winning the mercurial PGA carries the least heft among the four majors in the minds of the players and public.
Winners have often been obscure players, sometimes on forgettable venues.
Television ratings occasionally suffer, with the American football season beginning and summer winding down, as thoughts of fans turn to school and other responsibilities. Fourth of Four, indeed.
Pity, that. Because for those paying attention, the PGA has delivered the most consistently entertaining grand slam product over the past 15 years or so - Tiger Woods's duels with Sergio Garcia and Bob May were as good as it gets for seat-cushion theatre.
Dustin Johnson's dust-up in the bunker on the 72nd hole was memorable, while Garcia's battle with Padraig Harrington was vintage fare, too.
But those examples merely represent the final result of the week. In getting to that particular point, the PGA is arguably the hardest of the four grand slam events to win, too.
Unlike the first three majors, the 156-man PGA field does not include a single amateur or shrug-inducing invitee.
The British and US open formats include open qualifying - no offence to amateurs - but it dilutes the firepower of the field.
The Masters field has around 95 players, many of them amateurs or ageing past champions well past their prime, making it the easiest of the four slams to win, in that regard.
The PGA, which annually features the top 100 players from the world rankings, clearly is the deepest of the four grand slam fields.
"I don't think any of them are really easy to win, to be honest," the Masters champion Adam Scott said. "I mean, thinking about it, logic would say [the PGA is] tougher. It's got a stronger field."
Sometimes, that works to its detriment.
The PGA over the years has been derided for producing frequent off-the-radar winners.
In reality, the PGA produced six champions from 2001 through 2012 who never claimed another major victory, the same total as the US and British opens. The Masters has had five one-and-done slam winners in that span.
Granted, this might not qualify as a prime marketing idea, but … one of this week's PGA groupings includes Rich Beem, Mark Brooks and Shaun Micheel - players who not only claimed the PGA as their lone career major, but never again won another PGA Tour-sanctioned event, period. Ouch.
But is the seeming randomness of the PGA's past winners really a demerit?
At no point in the game's history has the player ranked No 100 in the rankings been as capable of pulling off a major upset - as evidenced by the previously indomitable Tiger Woods, who was reeled in for the first time in the final round at a major by the largely unheralded YE Yang (No 110 at the time) at the PGA four years ago. Despite the presence of 20 club professionals in the event, the PGA has far less field filler, in other words.
"There are a lot of good players playing golf at the moment and major championships are probably harder to win than they ever have been," Lee Westwood said.
This week, especially.
"When I first joined the tour, it seemed like there was maybe a handful of guys who could win and had a legitimate chance, and by Sunday they were all up there," said the Dallas resident Hunter Mahan, 31, who has played in the final pairing at the last two majors.
"Now, there might be maybe 25, 30, when they step on the tee on Thursday with a chance to win and they have the games and potential to do that."
If anything, that estimate would seem to be low.
Moreover, while the venues at the first three majors are prepared in very different fashions, the PGA set-up is the grand slam event most often compared to the grounds-keeping at a traditional PGA Tour event. Oak Hill is a parkland course, lined with hardwood trees and rough, not to be confused with racecourse-fast Augusta or a tactical British seaside venue, to be sure.
As a result, a rank-and-file pro need not make as many wholesale changes in his bag, or his plan of attack, from a typical tournament week on the tour. Visually, the PGA usually looks a lot like the courses the US and European tour pros see and tackle every week, with few tricks or overcooked twists. Thus, in totality, the PGA is primped and primed to allow the best player - not necessarily of that particular era - to win.
"It's one of the best set-ups I've ever seen," Mickelson said after seeing Oak Hill. "I just think it's incredibly well thought out and should identify the best player this week."
What's wrong with that, exactly?
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