Few golfers are as consistently thoughtful as Rory McIlroy. That reputation has led to him receiving a somewhat broader spectrum of questions at press conferences than many of his peers. He gets the sorts of questions one would expect lobbed at Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, more than a dozen years his senior.
Last week was no different. At his pre-PGA Championship presser, McIlroy was asked about the importance of the recent mini-trend of hosting several recent PGA Championships and U.S. Opens at municipal course like TPC Harding Park.
His response was insightful: "I think it's very important. I've always said that golf, everywhere in the world, but I think especially in the United States, it can become more accessible still, and I think bringing the biggest tournaments in the world to public courses is a step in the right direction."
On the surface, it's not all that complicated an answer. Yes, it is nice when these high-profile championships visit golf courses that the public can access relatively easily and affordably. But McIlroy went a little further. I took "It can become more accessible still" as a subtle suggestion not just about the game in general, but its highest-profile tournaments. Sotto voce, McIlroy implied that perhaps it would be good for golf if municipal golf courses were more than an occasional stop on a stateside roving major schedule that is historically overwhelmingly weighted toward private clubs.
Bad news for Rory. As much as he and other pros might have enjoyed playing back-to-back PGAs at Bethpage Black and TPC Harding Park, there are no munis on the current schedule, even though the tournament is booked through 2031. Barring a shakeup to the current plan, McIlroy will be at least 42 years old the next time the chance comes again. Tiger Woods, whom we forget was raised on low-cost golf courses, will be 55; 2020 PGA champ Collin Morikawa will be at least 34.
If it's any consolation, they will play public venues twice in that span: next year at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, where McIlroy won in 2012; and in 2027 at the PGA's now-under-construction Frisco, Texas flagship facility.
Bottom line: from 2022 on, there are currently zero U.S. Opens or PGA Championships scheduled at municipal golf courses.
Anytime you can play a course that pros play, or even one professional plays, it's always really cool because you get a sense of what they go through every single day.
In his own press conference before last week's event, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said of the organization's efforts toward improving the game's image, including recent uses of accessible golf courses, "we are for making the game look a lot more like the world so that the world can look a little bit more like the values and the beauty of our game."
This is an admirable sentiment, and there is reason to believe the PGA is earnest in its own attempts to make golf more inclusive, a project that goes far beyond major championship host sites. Initiatives like the PGA Junior League and PGA WORKS program address opportunities for junior golfers and persons of color looking to work in golf. These are positive steps.
Still, having to avoid municipal courses for more than a decade after two straight successful (even amid 2020's pandemic) outings is unfortunate. A run of exclusive private clubs, interspersed with upscale public venues, is what the old world of major championship golf looked like.
Asked why the long break from municipal PGA hosts, Waugh said, "Good news, bad news, not to blame anything, but I inherited a series of events and venues over the next 10 to 15 years, and so it is what it is." And that's true; Waugh only became PGA CEO in September of 2018. He seems eager to help steer the game toward inclusivity and we should take him at his word unless his and his organization's actions suggest otherwise.
Should we pencil Harding Park in for the 2032 PGA, then?
Future major championships at American public and municipal golf courses
So far, this century has been a good one for exposing golf fans to great public facilities, and both the PGA and the United States Golf Association (USGA) have been to thank.
Before 1999's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, the only non-private club that had ever hosted the event was Pebble Beach, in 1972, 1982 and 1992. Starting with that memorable week through next year, the USGA will have contested 12 of 23 championships at courses belonging either to resorts or municipalities: a rate of 52%. That's a commendable turnaround.
Pinehurst No. 2 is set to host in 2024 and Pebble Beach will host in 2027, the last year for which the event is currently scheduled. Hopefully the late 20s will include at least one municipal host venue. Could it be Chambers Bay, where the grass issues that plagued the 2015 U.S. Open have been fixed by a full transition to poa annua greens?
From 2004 through next year, the PGA Championship will have been played at resort or municipal courses seven out of 18 times: a rate of 39%. Also respectable, but with only 2 public and zero current future municipal PGA Championship sites, that percentage will deteriorate.
It seems that Frisco's two new golf courses will host their share of future championships, but perhaps the PGA could also take a fresh look at some other venues, including a former host site or two. One that jumps to mind is Tanglewood Park, near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It hosted the 1974 PGA, where Lee Trevino outdueled Jack Nicklaus. The Robert Trent Jones-designed Championship Course was remodeled in 2018. The weather in the Carolinas tends to be nice in May, too. It's a 7,100-yard par 70 at the moment, and some of its runway tees could be extended if necessary.
Recent showcases of accessible golf in America's movable major championships have helped remind viewers that great golf does not necessarily have to be expensive and cloistered. Next year will be nice, with Torrey Pines and Kiawah Island showing two different sides of accessible golf. Why does that momentum grind to an unnecessary halt in 2022?