Does the PGA Championship produce the worst major winners? An investigation
ST. LOUIS — It produces a hodgepodge of winners. That’s the stigma associated with the PGA Championship. Compared to other majors’ ignominies—like the weather predicating who captures the claret jug or USGA officials unnecessarily intervening at the U.S. Open—the PGA’s alleged stain is relatively innocuous. But that belief is real, and Golf Digest’s own Brian Wacker set off a firestorm for reflecting that sentiment in a recent column, one that drew blowback from some past champions.
But is it fair? Or more importantly, correct? We know there are a host of names engraved on the Wanamaker Trophy that won’t sniff the Hall of Fame, yet every tournament boasts such a roll call. Which got us thinking: Which major—year in, year out—produces the “best” and “worst” winners?
For our investigation we used OWGR data from 2000 to 2017, giving each major 18 submissions for 72 winners total. Why 2000? That year Titleist’s Pro V1 and Nike’s solid-core Tour Accuracy golf balls were introduced, which from an equipment perspective is viewed as the parcel in how the game was played, and how it is today. Plus, manually charting this test became time-consuming, and 18 and 72 seemed apropos golf numbers.
Mentioned above, we pulled a player’s Official World Golf Ranking the week before their major triumph, giving us a snapshot of their stature in the game pre-victory. OWGR does have its critics, but it’s the best barometer available to illustrate this idea of a player’s standing.
So what does that equation reveal? This century, the Open Championship produces the “worst” winner, with an average OWGR rank of 42.55. The Masters has the highest average OWGR winner at 15.77, followed by the U.S. Open with a 21.83 mark and the PGA at 33.22.
That the Masters is decidedly lower than its major brethren is not a surprise. Only 85 to 90 players tee it up at Augusta National, a limited field compared to the competitions at the other three majors. The green jackets want to ensure a “name” entity join their ranks, and—judging by these numbers—that endeavor’s been a success.
However, there are outliers, so what happens if we subtract the highest OWGR winner from each tournament? Call this the Ben Curtis Corollary, because without his Cinderella story in the mix, the Open Championship jumps the PGA, 21.94 to 25.23. (The Masters remains the lowest at 12.65, the U.S. Open trailing at 18.41.)
There is another part to this equation. Chiefly, how often does a championship cater to the best in the world? Amazingly, the PGA Championship comes out on top, with nine of its last 18 winners—Tiger Woods three times, Rory McIlroy twice, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Jason Day—ranking inside the top five in the world. That’s three more than the Masters and the British, and four better than the U.S. Open.
Moreover, only five times has the PGA Championship winner been ranked outside the top 30 this century. That’s equal to the U.S. Open, with six British Open victors outside the top 30 (the Masters has just two such instances: Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera).
Mentioned above, the OWGR data provides only a glimpse before a player’s win, failing to showcase what followed. For example, Justin Thomas enters Bellerive as the defending PGA champion, ranked No. 2 in the world. A ranking markedly better than his No. 14 standing the week before his Quail Hollow triumph. Conversely, every major battles this issue, which somewhat negates its wrath.
Still, the OWGR numbers give us an idea of the merit of each event’s winner. And, at least this century, the PGA more than meets the standards of a major champion.