The argument grows stronger each year at the PGA Championship for some type of legislation that would reduce the 25 spots awarded annually to club pros. Yeah, it's ”their tournament,” the naysayers agree, but why not get rid of the club pros and have just the 150 best players in the world?
It's legitimate, seeing how the PGA is the fourth and final major championship of the season, and with the Ryder Cup looming, a lot is on the line. But they’re missing the crux of the argument, and a lot of good stories.
Or has the anti-club pro faction forgotten Pete Oakley, an obscure "clubber" from Delaware who shocked the golfing world last month by winning the British Senior Open? Or how about Mike Small, who was among the leaders at this year’s Western Open in Chicago before he had to return to his day job as golf coach at the University of Illinois?
Other long shots will emerge as long as the PGA of America — which is not to be confused with the PGA Tour — has its say. Despite no club pro making the cut the past two years at the PGA, and the bigger story being Tiger Woods on the throes of losing his No. 1 world ranking to Ernie Els or Vijay Singh, the tournament still has a unique and refreshing feel to it.
Kathy Wilkes, the executive director of the Southwest Section of the PGA, agrees wholeheartedly. Even though it’s difficult to pin her down on an opinion, Wilkes did offer this perspective.
“I guess there are valid points on both sides,” Wilkes said of the 25 exemptions that at one time numbered even more (40). “That being said, we’re giving back a little to our own, and that’s not such a bad idea. TV (appeal) is always the argument (to having the top 150 players in the world), but if we ever had a local (club pro from Arizona) in the field, I know that every TV around here would be tuned in to see how he’d do.”
Like us golf writers, Wilkes knows that the club pros make for good copy. Many of them are tour “wannabes,” and that always leads to adversity.
“Is everything we do just about the winners?” Wilkes asked rhetorically. “If it is, then we’re going to miss a lot of good stories about some really good guys.”
On the flip side of the argument, because 17.5 percent of the field is club pros, several Tour players of note won’t be there. Who do you think stands a better chance to win the PGA, a guy like Small (who qualified) or Tom Lehman, who ranks 114th in the world but is staying home in Scottsdale? Lehman is not the only player of note that will be missing at Whistling Straits when the PGA tees off today. Other proven winners who got the “club” include Scottsdale’s Billy Mayfair; Australian Aaron Baddeley who lives part-time in Scottsdale; and two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.
Unfair, perhaps. Still, I like the current setup, and hope the PGA never takes away another spot from “the hardest working guys in golf.” Remember, the PGA was not set up to be part of the Grand Slam of Golf; it was built on thousands of members from all across the country.
In a way, the PGA is comparable to the Masters, whose field is much weaker than the other majors — even the PGA — because of all its aging past champions. But when the Masters tried to pull the plug on its over-the-hill gang a few years ago, it was met with stiff resistance. And because the green jackets relented, Arnold Palmer’s farewell was almost as big a story as Phil Mickelson’s win last spring at Augusta National.
So let’s not lose our focus as to what this is all about. Sure, Mickelson or Ernie Els or — who knows? — maybe even Tiger will prevail. But in the meantime, perhaps some unheralded “nobody” like Small or Cary Huntgate from Kokomo, Ind. — or even Zane Zwembe from Centennial, Colo., (no, I’m not making this up) — will give us a momentary thrill.
It doesn’t have to come on Sunday, as with 25 hours of television coverage, any old round will do.