Why this PGA Championship feels like more of a major than perhaps *any* major before it

harding park without fans

TPC Harding Park might not have fans, but the PGA Championship still feels every bit like a major.

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Ed. note: Here it is: the fifth of eight installments of Bamberger Briefly, PGA Championship-style. Previously: player-caddie relationships; Tiger’s memoir; Tour grips; Jordan Spieth.

This whole business of golf and majors is a funny thing. Not funny ha-ha. Major golf is a serious business. Golf’s world serious, four times a year, not first to four. Ask Hogan. Ask Jack. Ask Tiger. Does he look like he’s playing for keeps or what? In a lifetime, you only get so many cracks at them. There’s a majesty to them, and most especially to this 102nd PGA Championship, at Harding Park. This is major. The world is tuning in.

There’s no question that the Western Open, in Walter Hagen’s era, was major. All the best players were there. The tournament was played on demanding courses. Newspaper coverage was lavish. People cared. Hagen won it five times and that’s why, along with a bunch of other things, he was Sir Walter. Now, in name, the Western Open doesn’t exist at all. These things aren’t fixed. Status isn’t fixed.

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This 102nd PGA Championship, at Harding Park, is as major as a major could be. It’s beyond golf. The world may be at sixes and sevens, but Jason Day’s card yesterday was a gorgeous display of 3s and 4s, with one 2 and not a single 5. This PGA Championship is a monument to the way we were and how we will be again. Like golf itself, it’s about accepting the facts, making the necessary adjustments, moving on. There are no fans. But that trophy awaits, along with a check for $1.98 million. No, they don’t round it up. It’s golf. It’s precise. The winner’s cut is 18 percent of the $11 million purse. The prize fund, as the Brits call it. Classy.

The fact that Hagen’s name is etched on the Wanamaker Trophy five times has a lot to do with the tournament’s status. Plus Tiger’s four, Gene Sarazen’s three, Brooks Koepka’s two, Davis Love’s one. This PGA Championship feels as major as any major in my 45 years of watching golf, up-close and from afar. (For this tournament, I’m very afar.) It’s the field. The course and how it’s been set up. The Wanamaker Trophy and the names on it. The weather. And, more than anything, where it has fallen on the calendar this year, and how it got there.

The Masters has a lot going for it, and one of those things is that it represents spring. April come she will. Among the seasons, spring is big. A major. One of the big four. In summer we love and in fall we harvest and in winter we sleep. All things we need, of course. But you don’t get to Chapters 2 and 3 and 4 without 1. Without spring and the rebirth it brings. Yes, it’s practically mid-August. But this PGA Championship, at Harding Park, is pure spring. It’s about life its own self.

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I’m a continent away, missing my first major in forever. Doesn’t matter. I’m feeling that marine layer here in Philadelphia, via ESPN and Golf Channel and from the memories of my previous trips to Harding. The lush, damp rough underfoot. The morning fog and then the afternoon sunshine barreling through it like a Pac-12 lineman bursting through a mid-major hole. Football stadiums will be filled again, someday. You gotta believe.

We have all, in different ways, endured this pandemic. At close distance or not, we’ve seen the infections, the deaths, the lost jobs, the crowded hospitals, the empty airports, the bankruptcy filings. It stinks. If you’re lucky, in your own upclose, the biggest hole in your life is all the weirdness the pandemic has brought to sports. It goes without saying that all of it is inessential, but sport is a fundamental part of life for millions of us. So, our lives have not been normal. We’ve been in winter since winter. We’ve been asleep. Not anymore, Monty! (See: Carlin, George.) We’re coming out of it. The azaleas, etc.

Yep, this PGA Championship is the Masters and then some. Colonial, Hilton Head, Hartford, Detroit, Columbus I, Columbus II, Minneapolis and Memphis — they were the California Swing and the Florida Swing combined. They were the necessary warmup act.

And now they’re playing the first major of the year out in San Francisco, on a public course. There are no fans on the first tee. There are no caddie-player high fives after holed putts. There are no post-round scrums, reporters huddled in the name of Tiger or Rory. But we-care golf is being played. Man, are we an adaptable people, we earthlings. We’re not throwing in the towel. The opposite. The fellas are trying to get their name on a trophy. We’re watching.

This major is ridiculously major. The more we care, the more major the major. Have you ever cared more?

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@GOLF.com.

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.