The scramble at Southern Hills
By Paul Sullivan
Players teeing off at this week’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are playing a course that has been renovated since the last time it hosted a PGA in 2007 (when Tiger Woods won by two). Gil Hanse, who has become the go-to architect for courses hoping to host a U.S. Open or PGA Championship, renovated the course in 2019.
But the players are also competing on a course that wasn’t selected until early last year — an unheard-of rush for a major championship — and one that had not been planning to host its first major after the renovation until 2030.
How this came about was something no one involved could have imagined when the course for the 2022 PGA Championship was announced in 2014.
Every major golf championship is planned years, if not decades, in advance. The courses that will host are locked in, and the process to get them ready for players, and sponsors, usually requires years.
The U.S. Open has planned out past some people’s lifetimes, with Oakland Hills in Bloomfield, Michigan, tapped to host the 2051 tournament. The British Open is set for courses until 2025. The Masters, of course, will be at Augusta National Golf Club, unless the world ends.
The PGA Championship, which is organized by the Professional Golfers Association of America, has long been on a four-year activation cycle. This means teams have time to get to the next site to plan the tournament, drum up sponsorships and plan the course setup, which includes asking for course modifications.
The PGA Championship is planned out to 2031 — or 2034 if you count a few open years until the championship is at the PGA’s new headquarters in Frisco, Texas.
The only exception was this year, when a course and all the planning for the 2022 championship happened in 16 months.
So why and how did the PGA of America and Southern Hills have to get ready so quickly?
In 2014, the PGA awarded the men’s major to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Its owner, Donald Trump, was then a businessman with a portfolio of 17 golf clubs in the United States and Scotland.
That same year, Trump bought Turnberry, a Scottish course that had hosted the British Open four times. He had a reputation for investing heavily in his clubs and also for wanting to host big tournaments, which can be a hassle for private clubs that have members who can’t play as the tournament gets close.
It seemed like a solid plan to host the tournament at what is better known as Trump Bedminster.
“The PGA of America is excited to begin a new chapter of major championship history by taking two of our premier championships to venues that bear the Trump label of excellence,” Ted Bishop, then-president of the PGA of America, said at the time.
Trump said: “Having the PGA is a very, very big deal. So, it’s very important to me. It’s a great honor for me.”
Then he was elected president in 2016. Fast forward to Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump gave a speech that fired up a crowd in Washington, which then stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 election results.
Five days later, the PGA of America announced it had voted to pull the 2022 major from the Trump course.
“It has become clear that conducting the PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand and would put at risk the PGA’s ability to deliver on many programs and sustain the longevity of our mission,” said Jim Richerson, the PGA of America’s president.
And that left the organization scrambling to find a course to host the tournament and get a team there. While a major championship is about top golf, it’s also about building the equivalent of a small town that can bring in the maximum revenue for the governing bodies. Rushing that isn’t ideal.
Some 30 courses raised their hands. One of those was Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, which has hosted the tournament three times.
“When the PGA of America said we’re going to move the tournament, I said we need to step in and help,” said David Pillsbury, CEO of Invited (the new name for ClubCorp), which owns Firestone, and a former PGA Tour executive. “I said we can do this. We have a world-class-tested course. We have had the Senior Players Championship there, so there’s a senior staff there.”
In the end, none of the suitors were selected. And the PGA went with Southern Hills, which it knew well because it was hosting the Senior PGA Championship that year.
“One of the main reasons we ended up selecting Southern Hills when we decided to move it is because we had the Kitchen Aid Senior PGA there in 2021,” said Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA. “We were working with the community, the city, we had a lot of plans together.”
But a senior tournament is not the same as a PGA Championship. For one, the course is set up shorter and easier. And there just aren’t as many fans or sponsors to accommodate. The dollars are much less.
But Southern Hills had something that other courses didn’t. “We had staff on site,” Haigh said. “We also had a contract in place for them to host a PGA Championship, albeit for a later year. All the things that needed to happen — agreeing on a contract, moving staff, having relationships with all those people — were already in place.”
The course, though, would have to play longer. At a par 70, it was set at 6,968 yards for the Senior PGA. This week it will measure 7,635 yards for the PGA. That added distance can change the angles that players have to take; it can also alter the setups.
A major tournament, though, is more than the course. It’s about the fans and the sponsors who will help fund a prize pool worth over $12 million, with more than $2 million going to the winner.
“It’s a midsized market, so that concern was raised that they wouldn’t have enough money to go again,” said John Handley, director of championship sales and marketing at the PGA. “We didn’t experience a whole lot of that. The membership at Southern Hills was incredibly helpful. We felt we had a good pulse of the market. The concern never materialized.”
The experience had the CEO of the PGA, Seth Waugh, pondering if planning years in advance was even worth it. In an interview with Gary Williams, a golf commentator, Waugh said this past year had taught him that a major could be planned more quickly.
“Frankly, when you say 20 to 25 years, I think it’s a little bit, possibly irresponsible, because who knows what’s going to happen between then and now,” he said. “You certainly don’t need that much time to lock something in. When I made the decision to move to Southern Hills a year and a half ago, we had 30-plus venues that were willing to take us on.”