2006: PGA - Just right
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
At about the same time Nick Price was pulling away from the field for his three-stroke victory at the 1992 PGA Championship, Jim Awtrey and Kerry Haigh were reaching an epiphany of their own, huddled in a golf cart not far from the action at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.
Fourteen years later, from behind his desk in a no-frills office located in the bowels of PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Haigh – whose measured, unassuming delivery is bereft of even the slightest hint of hyperbole – recalls that meeting with HDTV clarity.
“I basically said to Jim, ‘The better way for us to continue to improve the way we were going with the PGA Championship is for us to put a staff person in charge of the setup,’ ” Haigh says. “If that staff person is me, then my head is on the line and I’m going to do it.”
Fourteen years later, Haigh’s head is still on the line, but the PGA Championship – once a distant fourth in the four-horse Grand Slam race – has ascended to a new level of respectability born from a rich mix of old and new venues and buoyed by sound course setup.
Just months prior to that impromptu meeting between Haigh and Awtrey – then the PGA’s acting executive director – the PGA of America had reached a philosophical crossroads, having wrested the lion’s share of control of its marquee event away from the hosting clubs. Nearly everything from corporate hospitality to hole locations were now the responsibility of the national organization.
In Haigh, an Englishman who’d joined the association two years earlier from KemperSports, Awtrey saw the perfect setup man – detail oriented, focused, unpretentious and, perhaps most important, willing to make tough decisions and stand behind them.
“I was looking for someone who was strong enough to do the job and confident enough to accept the responsibility and the pressure that comes with that,” says Awtrey, who stepped down as the PGA’s chief executive officer last year.
What has followed from that simple meeting is one of the most impressive accomplishments in major championship administration. When the golf gentry descend upon Medinah Country Club for next week’s PGA Championship, it will do so secure in the knowledge that there will be no Carnoustie carnage (1999) or Shinnecock snafus (2004 U.S. Open).
“The PGA gets it right,” Tiger Woods said following the final round of last year’s PGA at Baltusrol Golf Club. “They set it up fair every time. It’s never over the limit.”
The PGA has avoided the kind of high-profile gaffes that seem to have become so prevalent at the U.S. Open and British Open, and though Haigh is loath to say so himself, much of the credit for that rests squarely on the shoulders of the 47-year-old from Doncaster, England, with the boyish grin.
“He is selfless and he has a deep sense of responsibility and accountability,” says Joe Steranka, who succeeded Awtrey as CEO. “When you’re entrusted with one of the game’s treasures, that’s the type of person you’d like to have.”
In hindsight, Haigh’s ascension began long before that warm August day at Bellerive. The die that made the Englishman the perfect philosophical fit was cast nearly a decade earlier during a pre-tournament tour of Woburn Golf & Country Club outside London, site of the 1984 Women’s British Open.
Haigh, who was working for the PGA of Great Britain at the time, was along to advise LPGA officials on how to set up Woburn for the Open. But he quickly became concerned with what he was hearing.
“It was kind of an eye opener for me because I was surprised how (difficult) it was being . . . set up,” Haigh says. “I kind of expressed some of my thoughts at that time to the LPGA. Knowing what the weather can do in October and all the other things considered, the tees that were being used, I kind of suggested it may be a little challenging for the players that I knew.”
As Haigh feared, the weather turned bad, resulting in a winning total over par and embarrassingly high scores, especially among European players. The episode would have a profound impact on how Haigh, who was 25 at the time, would develop as a golf course setup man.
From the outset, Haigh’s and the PGA of America’s plan for preparing championship courses were ideological carbon copies.
“Our aim is for the golf course and the players to be the championship,” Haigh says.
Unlike the U.S. Golf Association, whose fixation on producing a winning score around even par has led to many of its well-publicized miscues, Haigh and the PGA focus almost entirely on creating a “fair” test, regardless of the champion’s score.
The textbook application of Haigh’s philosophy came during the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. Following torrential rain Friday that forced the completion of Round 2 early Saturday, Haigh became concerned with a forecast that predicted high wind gusts in the afternoon. Fearing the impact the conditions could have on the 586-yard, par-5 15th hole, Haigh opted to play from a shorter tee, which lopped about 60 yards off the hole.
“It was a defining moment for him,” Steranka says. “His preparation, his attention to detail and his focus on maintaining the integrity of the championship all came together.”
Perhaps the highest-profile example of Haigh’s commitment to an even-handed setup came two years later at Whistling Straits, the out-of-the-way links-style layout on the shores of Lake Michigan that entered the Grand Slam rota untested.
The move to the Pete Dye design was bold, even by PGA standards, and the chorus of concerns in the days leading to the championship reached a crescendo when Shaun Micheel, the 2003 PGA champion, predicted 76 would be a good score if the wind blew.
Not surprisingly, Haigh took a predictably cautious approach for the venue’s first major, playing markedly shorter tees for Rounds 1 and 2. And when wind gusts, which were forecast to reach 25 mph, failed to materialize, low scores filled the leaderboard and Haigh came under pressure to put the teeth back in Dye’s design, particularly from course owner Herb Kohler. Haigh, however, remained committed to his original plan, and by Sunday Vijay Singh needed a grinding 4-over 76 to force a playoff and claim his second PGA with an 8-under total.
“Even (Woods) and some others made the statement that thank goodness it was the PGA and not the USGA, or we’d have been way over par,” Awtrey says.
A lengthened Medinah – the club has added about 150 yards to the Tom Bendelow design since the ’99 PGA – will give Haigh plenty of options to “safely” test the world’s best. Of particular interest will be the par-3 13th, which can be stretched to 244 yards by using a new tee on the far side of the water hazard.
But his bigger concern, however, will be keeping the venerable layout’s putting surfaces from becoming singed in the oppressive August heat, as was the case in 1999.
“The last time at Medinah the greens were not what we would have liked,” Haigh says. “Our goal is not to leave a club with no greens or greens that are dying from the heat and stress.”
In many ways, Haigh’s careful approach is the reason he’s something of the Teflon setup man, seemingly immune to the lapses that have befallen his counterparts with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the USGA. But he’s also aware his resume is only as good as his last championship. Second guessing is part of the deal – consider it an occupational hazard – and Haigh prepares for every championship with equal parts angst and excitement.
“I have sleepless nights heading into every event,” he says. “That’s my job.”
But then, sitting in that golf cart with Awtrey 14 years ago, he knew that.