The Last Leg of the Grand Slam

The PGA Championship has often been referred to as the “4th Major”, in a way that seems to give it less importance than the U.S. Open, British Open and the Masters.

It wasn’t always that way.

Long before the Masters, when a Grand Slam was only a baseball term, The PGA Championship was one of the premier tournaments on every professional golfer’s calendar.

In the early part of the 20th century, golf was considered a “gentleman’s game” and was the favourite sport of the wealthy. Private clubs were springing up all over North America, using the club model that was prevalent in the British Isles at the time. In fact, many of the first pros at these new clubs had been imported from the old country.

They were necessary additions to every club because they not only gave lessons to the members, they also manufactured and sold clubs, designed courses and maintained the greens. As such, the professionals were deemed to be employees and not held in high esteem by the wealthy amateurs that populated the membership. And certainly not equals.

Pros of the day were often denied access to the clubhouse or if permitted to enter, usually had to use a different door than the members. They rarely were permitted to play with the members and being “professionals” were never allowed to compete in the top amateur events that were becoming so popular with golf fans.

In 1916, a wealthy department store owner named Rodman Wanamaker helped a small group of club professionals form an association called the PGA of America. Later that same year, the new association held its first championship at Siwanoy Country Club in New York. The format was match play and open to the best professional golfers from all over the world. Jim Barnes of England defeated Jock Hutchinson of Scotland 1-up in the final match. He earned the princely sum of $500 and the Wanamaker trophy.

After a two year hiatus for World War I, Barnes defended his title in 1919 by beating another Scottish American, Fred McLeod, 6&5.

It was somewhat ironic that the club professionals were banned from top events of the day because the amateurs for the most part were often much better golfers. Not usually burdened with day jobs, they were free to practice and compete as often as they wanted while the club pros were working hard to please their members. There was no pro tour to speak of at the time and only the best pros could make any real money, usually by performing in exhibitions and competing in a few big money championships.

Two men changed the face of golf in the 1920’s. One of course was Bobby Jones, an attorney from Atlanta who competed as an amateur and was every bit as good as the best professionals in the world. The other was Walter Hagen, a flamboyant high roller from Rochester, NY.

Hagen would have been a mega star if television existed in the 1920’s. He dressed better than his fellow professionals, drove better cars and loved to play to the cameras. He was always handy with a quip to reporters or brilliantly entertaining when delivering a speech after accepting a cheque and trophy. Hagen was definitely flashy, which was considered somewhat undignified at the time, especially amongst the private club crowd, but the man could play.

Hagen and Jones had some epic battles during the 1920’s and often credited each other as being an incentive to play better. From 1922 to 1930, the two men won seven of the nine Open Championships. During the same period, Jones won five U.S. Amateurs and a British Amateur.

The 1920’s was called the Golden Age of Golf and the winner of the U.S. Amateur was heralded much the same way a World Series champion would be. In fact, maybe even better. Jones was the darling of the media and they certainly enhanced his reputation. When he won the U.S. Open and Amateur and the British Open and Amateur in 1930, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York City. Can you imagine any golfer getting that treatment today?

While Jones was off winning amateur titles, Hagen was working the limited pro circuit. As a former U.S. Open champion (1914 and 1919), he was one of the biggest stars in the field any time he teed it up. In 1921, Hagen captured the PGA Championship, then reeled off four more titles in consecutive years from 1924-1927. The little tournament that started in 1916 had blossomed into a world class event with a larger-than-life champion.

By the time Jones retired from competitive golf in 1930, Hagen’s career was also on the wane. He had won 11 major championships in his career, which places him third all time behind Jack Nicklaus (18) and Tiger Woods (14). He and Nicklaus share the record for most (5) PGA Championships titles in a career.

Ironically, it was Jones who gave the lustre of the PGA Championship another boost when he created the Masters Tournament in 1934. Until that time, the two national amateur championships and the two national Opens of the U.S. and Britain had been considered the pinnacle of tournament golf and were often referred to as the Grand Slam. After Jones retirement, no other amateur was able to rise to such dominance and the world of competitive golf began to change. More professional tournaments were providing purses that made it feasible for players to make a living and the media began to follow.

As amateur golf began its decline, professional golf took off, dominated by players such as Hogan, Snead, Nelson and others. The biggest tournaments on their schedule were the U.S. Open, British Open, Masters and PGA Championship. They were followed closely by the Western Open and Canadian Open, which at one time had been given near major status too.

By the time Arnold Palmer started winning everything in the late fifties, the PGA Championship had solidly earned its reputation as the fourth major. In 1958, under pressure from television and its sponsors, the tournament changed from match play to stroke play. The idea of two no-name players battling in the final was anathema to the companies paying the bills, when they knew it was possible to see a large group of top players in the field on the final Sunday.

The change to stroke play made it easier for the Tour to slot the PGA Championship into its schedule too. For many years the PGA and the British Open overlapped so players would have to choose one or the other. Ben Hogan only went overseas once but won the Open at Carnoustie in 1953. He became just the second player after Gene Sarazen to win all four professional majors in his career but no-one yet had ever won all four majors in a single year.

In 1960, Palmer began the season by winning both the Masters and U.S. Open. He started to talk about winning all four majors in a single season and the press got hold of the idea and dubbed it the modern Grand Slam.

Over the ensuing decades, the Grand Slam became something of an impossible dream. Nicklaus teased us in 1972 by wining the first two legs (Masters and U.S. Open) but lost the British Open by a stroke to defending champion Lee Trevino. Likewise, Jordan Spieth nabbed the first two majors in 2015 but then missed getting into a playoff at St. Andrews by a single shot.

Tiger Woods came closest to a modern Grand Slam and held all four majors at the same time but they carried over from the end of 2000 to the Masters in 2001. The press dubbed it “the Tiger Slam” and certainly nobody has done it before or since but it still wasn’t a Grand Slam.

Tiger won four PGA Championships in his career and lost one. The tense battle and playoff he had with Bob May at Valhalla in 2000 is the stuff of legends but the loss to Y.E Yang in 2009 at Hazeltine signalled the beginning of the end for Tiger and marked the first time in his career he had ever lost the lead in a major.

Throughout its history, the PGA Championship has had a rocky relationship with both the media and golf fans. During the reign of Palmer and Nicklaus, the tournament regained some of the lustre it had achieved in the 20’s, partly because the two golf icons were chasing and racking up majors like never before, and partly due to the format and scheduling change that allowed it to be broadcast on television.

However, the tournament went through a long period when it had no fixed date – it was played in every month from February to November – and more recently, suffered from a handful of B List champions. That’s not to denigrate the talents of anybody that plays on the PGA Tour, it’s just a personal comment that the best tournaments, the majors, should produce the best champions. A few winners like Keegan Bradley, Shaun Micheel and Rich Beem left everybody scratching their heads and wondering if they had just watched a major or the Quad Cities Open.

Then again, the PGA Championship introduced us to future stars like John Daly and Payne Stewart. Regardless of the champion’s pedigree, it’s still a major and for some Hall of Famers, it remains the missing link to their own career Grand Slams. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson were never able to win the title, even though Palmer came second three times and Watson lost in a playoff in 1978 to John Mahaffey.

One of the intriguing aspects of the PGA Championship is that it has stayed true to its association roots for over 100 years. Despite the depth of talent on the various tours around the world that could easily fill every roster spot, the PGA of America reserves 20 spots for PGA club pros and that creates a tournament within the tournament. Those guys still work in pro shops, give lessons and run their own small businesses and most won’t make the cut but every now and again it’s fun to see one of them rise to the occasion and make the cut or contend for a day or two.

As the final major of the year, the tournament also invokes a variety of reactions from every player in the field. For some players it’s one last desperate attempt to turn around a disappointing year with a statement victory, while for others the PGA Championship may represent the cherry on top – a chance to turn a good season into a great one.

Then there is 2017 and the special case of Jordan Spieth. The young Texan finds himself in the same position as Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson – three legs of a career Grand Slam in the bag, just needing a PGA Championship title to complete it. Of course it won’t be easy. Rory McIlroy wants to make a statement this year and has been playing well of late. So too have Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama, who will both be looking for their first Major.

There will be 153 other players in the field and they too will have their own reasons for wanting to win the little tournament that started 101 years ago as an event for the best professionals in the world.

Seems like it’s still pretty relevant today.

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