FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK | The most valuable player at Bethpage Black is probably Tiger Woods in terms of his assets, his wealth, his profile and what he means to any golf tournament in which he plays. But the most valuable player to the PGA of America who stages what is now the second of the year’s four major events?
That’s a different matter. You may not know him. Indeed if you do know him you are probably an employee of the PGA of America, in which case you are disqualified from answering the question, or you have been spending too much time indoors reading about golf and not enough time playing it.
On Tuesday Seth Waugh, chief executive of the PGA of America, nominated that organisation’s MVP. Step forward Kerry Haigh, a tall, somewhat self-effacing Englishman who turned 60 in February. Born in Doncaster, England, he attended Leeds University, where he studied the esoteric-sounding subject of planning and administration before joining first the Women’s PGA in Britain, then the LPGA and finally moving comfortably to the PGA of America, for which he serves as chief championships officer. Like many Britons transplanted to the US, he has acquired a mid-Atlantic way of speaking that is neither totally British nor completely American, a linguistic Sargasso Sea.
Haigh has been setting up golf courses for PGA of America competitions for 29 years. “What many people don’t know is that he also oversees the complete build of the championship outside the ropes,” Julius Mason, senior director of public relations for the PGA of America, said on Wednesday. “And trust me, that’s no small feat. He is building a temporary city in different markets around the country every year for a major championship.”
In August, Haigh will celebrate his 30th anniversary with his employers. And judging by the praise that whirls around his head as he does his job at up to 10 PGA of America events each year, it is to be hoped a big fuss is made of him when he reaches that milestone.
“He is really the MVP every year at the PGA Championship,” Waugh said last Tuesday. “I can’t wait to see what he does with this place, sort of van Gogh working on a Michelangelo, if you will, in terms of the theatre that will undoubtedly go on out there. He is the course whisperer if you like.”
Golf is unusual among sports in that the way the course is set up can have an important effect on the outcome and identify a particular type of player. It doesn’t happen in rugby, where one grass or artificial surface is very much like another. Grass tennis courts are self-evidently different from hard courts. Can you tell one swimming pool from another? No. Perhaps only a cricket pitch with a playing surface that can be varied according to the groundsman’s wishes and of course the results of the weather are so influential in a sport.
So it would be no surprise to hear many differing views about the way PGA courses are set up. Long hitters might say they are meat and drink to them as they power drives nearly 350 yards from the tee. Good putters might bemoan the quality of the putting surfaces. Straight hitters might wish that the fairways were even narrower.
“I don’t think he tries to make the story about him or the PGA of America. He tries to make the story about a solid examination for the players.” – Peter Kostis on Kerry Haigh
Yet there is one word that is used time and again in discussions about the courses Haigh sets up. Appropriately, for a game whose title contains four letters, this word contains four letters. The word is fair.
Listen to Rory McIlroy on the subject of Bethpage Black and the way that Haigh has set it up. “The greens aren’t too slopey. You get rewarded for good shots and you get punished for bad ones. I feel sometimes at major championships that courses are brought to the edge and sometimes good shots are punished. Whether that’s fair or not is up for debate. But I think it’s a very fair course. I think the setup is very fair. I think Kerry Haigh is the best in the business at setting golf courses up. I’ve said that for a long time.”
McIlroy is far from a lone voice on this matter. Haigh and the PGA “do a very good job,” Sir Nick Faldo said. “Everything inside the ropes is well prepared. They don’t want to shock the players. They don’t want to get too close to the line. They are quite happy making it difficult, not impossible. They are not concerned if 20-under (par) wins. They don’t think that diminishes the championship. Kerry sets it up pretty darn fair. Pins are always tough but accessible. Nothing too silly. They don’t want balls rolling off the green.”
“He is able to see a golf course in a way that really does bring out the best in the players and the best of the golf course every day,” Waugh said. “That is his mindset. He doesn’t come in to say, ‘I am going to change this.’ He comes in to say, ‘How do I show it at its best.’ I think he wants the players to enjoy it.”
There is no mystery to the way Haigh goes about preparing a golf course for a championship.
“Our philosophy is the championship is really for the players. Our job is to be able to prepare beautiful courses for the best players in the world and we do not need to be a part of that,” Haigh said.
That last phrase is important. You get the feeling that some championship golf courses are set up by people wanting to make a name for themselves or their event. In simple terms some course setups are so hard as to be unfair. “Make the players squeal” seem to be the watchwords of such people.
Not so Haigh. “Each course is different based on the architecture and we try and bring out whatever the architect had in mind for each golf course,” he said. “Our No. 1 aim is not to get in the way of the best players. We want them to showcase their skills. We want to make it tough; make it fair; make it challenging; hopefully at times make it exciting and hopefully make the players think, because I think if any golfer is given the ability to think then they enjoy their game more and they enjoy the challenge of that golf course more.”
Many people might share those same aims but few achieve them. “There’s good and there’s better than everybody else,” Peter Kostis, the CBS commentator, said. “Augusta is fairly standard and doesn’t really change much. The USGA has kind of lost its way. They are trying to do some different things. As a consequence they have made some pretty big mistakes in the setup.
“The PGA doesn’t have a formula. Kerry does a great job of taking the architecture of the golf course he has been given and presenting it to the players as a challenge. I don’t think he tries to make the story about him or the PGA of America. He tries to make the story about a solid examination for the players. He does a good job of not bastardising the golf course.”
Or, as fellow commentator Dottie Pepper put it: “He is respectful of the places he goes to. He doesn’t go to Kiawah (Island) and try to make it a parkland golf course. It’s a seaside American links-style golf course and the setup is that. If Mother Nature gets in the way, Mother Nature gets in the way. He is respectful of the design elements and lets the golf course stand on its own.”
In the mid-1980s, Haigh was still in England and being wooed by two possible masters: the European Tour and the LPGA. But John Laupheimer, then commissioner of the LPGA, called Haigh twice in one day and that was sufficient to tip the scales the LPGA’s way.
“I had never been to America and so I thought why not see what I can do, learn what I can,” Haigh said. “I travelled to 33-35 tournaments each year for four years. Learned everything I could about golf courses, setup, running events, inside and out. My final year working for the LPGA was 1988.”
After a few months working for Kemper Sports, Haigh joined the PGA of America three weeks after the 1989 PGA Championship.
Learning about golf architecture is something of a passion, and at his home near Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Haigh has as many as 40 books on the subject on his shelves. “I wasn’t trained in it but I guess it’s my love of golf and playing the game so I got to understand and recognise what I think are good golf courses,” he said.
Playing it is a passion too. As a schoolboy he took part in most of the usual games but it was at golf that he was best, once representing his country. Now, his handicap index at Old Palm Golf Club near the PGA headquarters in Florida is 2.5. “It is a beautiful golf course with a lot of water,” he said. “It has made me work at my game to get better. It’s like a hole-in-one if you finish a round with the same ball.”
When he last played Bethpage Black, he went round in “less than 80,” he said.
“Everyone wants to know what Kerry’s ‘secret sauce’ is,” Mason said on Wednesday. “He is one of the most analytical people I have ever met – his attention to detail is off the charts – and his recall is eerily remarkable.
“He has no ego. He is as stoic as he is passionate about the job he does. He would never want the story to be about him. He would want it to be about the championship. I think it’s cool that the man who wants no recognition is getting what he deserves.
“On the flip side, when your article is posted he probably won’t read it.”
Kerry Haigh eyes the weather during the second round of the 2017 PGA Championship. (Photo: Scott Halleran, PGA of America via Getty Images
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