Bisher: PGA's great championship returns to Georgia

Furman Bisher

Furman Bisher

Martin Kaymer paid us a visit a few days ago, and while his name may not have the ring of a Smith or a Johnson, or a Palmer or a Nicklaus, he is the champion of professional golf in our country.

Justly earned along the shores of Lake Michigan at Whistling Straits, Wisc., last August. He is German, the third foreign player in a row who has held our PGA Championship, in lock-step behind Padraig Harrington of Ireland and Y.E. Yang of South Korea.

Thus, at the age of 25, Kaymer became a member of the Professional Golf Association of America, the largest body of professional athletes in the world, a membership of somewhere around 30,000 men and women. Martin Kaymer will return in August to defend his title at the Atlanta Athletic Club, whose roots trace back to the original East Lake in Decatur. He was here fulfilling a defending champion’s obligation, and at the same time giving the tough, gruff remodeled course a personal inspection.

This will be the PGA Championship’s third visit to the Athletic Club, and since David Toms last won the Wanamaker Trophy there 10 years ago, the course has been stretched out to 7,467 yards, playing to the same par 70.

Larry Nelson won his first major at the Athletic Club in 1981, about a 45-minute drive from his home near Marietta, and Toms won in 2001 playing it safe on the finishing hole while Phil Mickelson, good ol’ Phil-the Thrill going for broke on the final hole, suffering defeat in the end.

Professional golf in this country is rooted in the PGA organization, originating in 1916. For all of its primary years the PGA Tour, as we know it now, was simply an auxiliary to the professionals who presided over your membership clubs. They were your teachers, your protector of the rules, your source of tee times. Members respected them and looked to them as their personal idol. There was no living to be made on what was then the tour. (For instance, one year the leading money-winner made just over $10,000. His name was Hogan. THAT one.)

You would begin to notice that such players as Byron Nelson gave his residence as Reading, Pa., and Henry Picard as Hershey, Pa. The pros hung their hats wherever they might locate a paycheck between stops on what was then more a rumor than a tour. It was in the late 1960s that the players divorced themselves from the PGA of America and became the PGA Tour, and so the burgeoning new empire of tournament golf assumed command.

The PGA of America, however, still maintained its steady hand in the club shops, and grew its own championship. Now it controls not only the PGA Championship, but the Ryder Cup, and thus presides over its own universe, and its status as one of the four majors that returns to the Athletic Club in August. Back home in all the club shops around this country, there beats the heart of this great game, in the loving care of those 30,000, or so.

Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.