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A Major Player

When will the Players Championship become the next Major?

Posted May 08, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Television’s leading golf pundit, Johnny Miller, has expressed the view that the status of the Players Championship is "getting to be a real issue."   He was referring, of course, to the stated ambition of successive PGA Tour commissioners, Deane Beman and Tim Finchem, that it become golf’s fifth Major. So it may be appropriate to take a brief look at what we will describe as the "major" situation.

First, there is the matter of when the Masters, launched as the Augusta Invitational in 1934, became a Major.  Opinions vary, with some contending that it can be pin-pointed to 1942 when, in the last staging before the break for World War II, Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole play-off.

Yet it is intriguing to note that in 1947, Leonard Crawley, golf correspondent of the "Daily Telegraph" acknowledged two American Majors, the US Open and the Masters.  Which obviously meant that the US PGA Championship, then a matchplay event until its change to strokeplay in 1958, didn't measure-up as far as he was concerned. However, the doyen of American golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, claimed that the Masters didn't become a Major until 1954, when Hogan lost another play-off, this time to Sam Snead.

Padraig Harrington, himself a three-time Major winner who also gained the distinction of finishing the Players with six threes when runner-up in 2004, has interesting views on the subject.  "We're told that a lot of the great players from the last century looked upon the present-day majors simply as big events," he said.  "It was only in retrospect that they were given Major status.  So, who is to say that KJ Choi (reigning Players champion) won't be considered a major winner in 20 years' time? It's very possible he will." 

And what of the Grand Slam, which would also have to change?  It first came into the golfing lexicon in 1930, when Bobby Jones won the US Open, British Open, US Amateur and British Amateur Titles - the so-called Impregnable Quadrilateral.  That's when the notion of four golfing Majors took hold.  But the realisation that there was unlikely ever to be another amateur to match Jones, prompted a re-think of golf's ultimate target.

This was most clearly defined by the events of 1960 when Arnold Palmer won the Masters and US Open before heading to St Andrews for his debut in the Centenary Open. As it happened, Bob Drum, his golf-writing friend from Pittsburgh, was invited along with him on the plane, because Drum's editor didn't consider the Open sufficiently important to warrant official coverage, even in Palmer's hometown paper. The story goes that during the flight, Palmer happened to ask Drum what the reaction would be if he were to win the Open and then perhaps the strokeplay US PGA that year.

We’re told that Drum, a man never at a loss for words, replied that it would be the equivalent of Jones's Grand Slam.  Whereupon Palmer reportedly declared: "That's what I'll do.  I'll win the Grand Slam."  Of course he didn't.  But that fateful conversation between himself and Drum, is believed to have given birth to the modern Grand Slam, which, incidentally, is decidedly different from the so-called "Tiger Slam" of 2000/2001 in that it must be completed in a calendar year.

In wicked winds on the opening day of what was then the Tournament Players Championship in 1984, a record 64 balls found a watery grave around the iconic, par-three 17th at Sawgrass, prompting American John Mahaffey to describe it as one of the easier par fives on the course.  Which led its proud architect, Pete Dye, to remark: "We wanted to build a course that would bring out all the shots of these great players.  And I think we've succeeded."

But Harrington claimed: "Sawgrass used to be fearsome, but it is now quite a normal test of golf.  There's nothing extreme about it anymore.  However, since its move from March to May [in 2007], the greens can get really firm and fast making it fairly scary, especially with the rough up."  He added:  "I believe that if there is to be a fifth Major, it should be the Australian Open, provided you get the right field.  Most of the great players have played it; it's been around for more than 100 years and has a choice of some wonderful courses.  So all that's missing is the right field." 

It is said that the three key ingredients for a Major are quality of venue, strength of field and tradition.  For the Players, which adopted its title as recently as 1988, the absent ingredient is tradition.  "Unlike the British Open, we don't have 100 years to wait to gain this prestige," said Beman in 1982.  Yet the fact that his dream remains unfulfilled, 30 years on, would suggest he and his successor will need to be patient some time longer.

- Dermot Gilleece

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