The Week Grip — How Will We Know When THE PLAYERS ® Becomes a Major?
Welcome to the twelfth installment of the Week Grip! Click here for the others, and follow along throughout 2019.
This is not another argument in the “Is THE PLAYERS ® a major?” debate.
That debate has gone belly-up, its carcass floating just a half-wedge from the 17th green at TPC Swamp Tamers, and every creature with a working internet connection and a pair of FootJoys has swum up or flown down to gnaw off their portion.
Every year, the tech-savvy vultures and Twitter-emboldened gators multiply, and the carcass is ritually torn to shreds.
Yet give it ten months, and the damn thing’s back and beefier than ever, an infinitely regenerating food source, ready to be chewed right up again. Sometimes literally.
Zac Blair says everyone should stop "trying to shove (The Players) down your throat" as a major …
The Players Championship returning to March was one of the key elements of the PGA Tour's revamped schedule for 2019…
You’ve got a former World № 1 sounding off…
…talking heads getting mad online…
…talking heads getting mad online (Aussie edition)…
…and shit, even the dang paterfamilias is in on it now!
Even those who try to bypass the carcass during a leisurely lap of the premises can’t help themselves and dive in for a nibble.
Both sides of the debate have merit, and crucially, those claiming that the event is a major now have powerful voices on their side. And this evening of the ledger leads to a much more interesting question:
How will we know when THE PLAYERS ® officially becomes a major?
Of course, to answer that question, we’ve got to know how other tournaments acquired, and lost, their major status.
***History lesson begins***
Timeline of Men’s Golf Majors
As most golf fans know, the four current majors have not always held those posts. Some tournaments merited massive coverage (and hefty payouts, in the case of pro events) back in golf’s early days before fading into obscurity. See below for my approximation, based on a few different #sources, for the timeline of when each event was (or is now) considered a major.
(Wait, before we get into this, take a quick look at the mid to late 1930s. By this reckoning, no fewer than EIGHT major championships were contested in those years!! The golf bubble burst with WWII)
Determining when a tournament fell off the “major championship” tier feels a lot like being a cat trying to catch the red dot made by a laser pointer. But it’s also just as fun, so let’s try.
The Open Championship and U.S. Open
These have been majors since their inception. Easy.
Grantland Rice’s most famous lede is his epic description of the “four horsemen” of Notre Dame, but he starred in another memorable group of four: Rice, along with Herbert Warren Wind, Clifford Roberts, and Bobby Jones, were the four driving forces behind the elevation of the Masters to major status, right from jump street.
The Western Open
Now it gets tricky. Though its winners are not labeled as major champions, the Western Open was considered a major for a good long while, starting with its first iteration. From Dan Jenkins’s autobiography:
It was a certified major from the days of Walter Hagen, Macdonald Smith, and Bobby Cruickshank through the days of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson. It’s a forgotten fact that a player received the same number of Ryder Cup points for winning the Western as he did for winning the U.S. Open and PGA. My theory is that the the Western Open tumbled out of favor for good in 1956, when the Masters went on national TV and the Western didn’t.
I’ll take that, from a man who attended more majors than any other.
The North and South Open
More from Jenkins, on the devaluing of the North and South Open, a Pinehurst staple and one of the biggest events on the calendar every year:
The North and South dated back to 1902 but started losing its status after ’46. The PGA of America decided it preferred money over history and charm. It declared the event “unofficial.” Dick Tufts, a rigid New Englander and future USGA president who owned the Pinehurst resort, didn’t take kindly to the PGA sticking a gun in his ribs.
Tufts said to PGA officials, “This tournament has been special to you people for fifty years.” They apparently suffered instant memory loss.
The last North and South Open was held in 1951, Tommy Bolt won it, and Tufts said, “May the PGA drown in a vat of Boston clam chowder.”
These two excerpts come one after another in his book, during a brief soliloquy on what constituted a major during Ben Hogan’s career.
An interesting sidenote in the Jenkins vein: as he was so close to the players of the day, he looked at majors from their side of things. Which is to say, the financial perspective:
I reckon Ben won fifteen majors. In his time the Western Open and the North and South Open were bonus events, same as the U.S. Open, PGA, Masters, and British Open. The equipment managers matched the prize money if you won them.
When the press ordained the Masters a major, which was five minutes after Gene Sarazen made that double eagle in 1935, the club companies placed it among the bonus tournaments. Winning a bonus tournament or national championship not only meant matching prize money, but larger paydays for exhibitions, clinics, outings, and magazine ads.
I’m not privy to the contracts players sign with equipment manufacturers these days, but I can’t imagine equipment manufacturers are matching winner’s checks. On the other hand, I’m sure Callaway would have liked Francesco Molinari’s first win with the company to come this week, instead of at Bay Hill last Sunday.
The Amateur tournaments are even harder to trace, as the line between high-level amateur golf and the professional game began to darken over the decades. These events certainly counted as majors in the 1920s, as Bobby Jones hoovered one up every few months.
Jack Nicklaus won his second U.S. Amateur in 1961, and that one counted… until it didn’t. He counted it as a major during the early years of his career, but has since said that it felt “borderline” at the time, and it obviously doesn’t count as a major in retrospect. Tiger Woods, owner of three U.S. Amateurs and astute student of golf history, is on record as saying that, just as video indeed killed the radio star, so big-time professional golf killed the U.S. Am’s status:
Woods brought the U.S. Amateur some attention by becoming the first male to win three straight years. But he never considered it a major. He suggests the demise of the Amateur came in the 1940s and 1950s, when Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson were the popular forces in golf.
‘That’s when professional golf got big,’ Woods said. ‘They didn’t play in it because they were all pros. I think that’s when you can discount any guy winning the Amateur as being a major.’
The British Amateur’s status cratered a bit earlier, as the all-hands-on-deck effort of WWII put any thoughts of serious amateur golf tournaments on hiatus. After the war, the event never returned to its former stature.
The PGA Championship
And now we get to the always fascinating, frequently fluctuating PGA.
The PGA Championship was highly regarded as soon as it started in 1916. The impetus for its inception was to create a significant golf event that did not allow amateur play — essentially, to identify the best professional golfer in the country. In the same vein as the two major amateur events, the event offered a stroke play portion followed by seeded match play.
Though it was contested by all the best players in the early days, including Hagen, Sarazen, Armour, Snead, and Nelson, it is the only one of these eight events (as far as I can tell) that wasn’t considered “major” upon its inception.
In fact, it’s commonly held that the PGA only ascended to its major status in 1960, when Arnold Palmer mentioned it as one of the two remaining tournaments he’d need to win in order to capture the Grand Slam that year (having already won the Masters and U.S. Open). This mention was amplified and ultimately coded into legend by Palmer’s trusty human megaphone, golf writer Bob Drum. From an ESPN piece by Bob Harig:
“‘One thing led to another,’ Palmer said. ‘Drum got me all excited about it. He wrote about it. He got the British press all excited about it. And they picked up on it.’”
So the PGA Championship was important for 44 years, and then all of a sudden became a major. If you’re still following along at home, you might be wondering why Walter Hagen sits third on the all-time major list with 11, if five of his wins came during the PGA Championship’s pre-major debutante period in the 1920s.
Essentially, because history is written by the winners. Ever since 1960, we’ve had the same four majors, and since the PGA is a major now, it means that every historical PGA winner retroactively picks up a major victory, whereas every win in a tournament no longer considered a major is thrown off the turnip truck.
What this means, of course, is that when THE PLAYERS ® becomes a major, a whole slew of former JAGs become proud members of the one-major club.
***History lesson ends***
The PGA Championship is our guiding light in determining the fate of THE PLAYERS ®. It’s the only event that acquired major championship status after its inception, and it has managed to keep that status while (or after) all but three major tournaments fell by the wayside. How did this happen, and what will it look like when it happens for THE PLAYERS ®?
First, it’s clear from Jenkins’s book that the PGA of America deliberately chose to elevate its championship at the expense of the North and South Open. That’s nothing more than pure self-interest on the part of one of the game’s governing bodies, who want to get all available eyeballs and column inches directed towards their pride and joy.
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This one’s a good read. Sample quote: “No golf tournament is promoted more tirelessly or jabbed at more frequently than the Players, which turns 45 this week and has the granite chin to prove it. Best field in the game. Biggest purse. Course wired for thrills and spills. That “fifth major” claim dates to Deane Beman’s days as PGA Tour commissioner, a hollow boast in that golf’s most important events need not and cannot anoint themselves.”
There’s a negative tone now, but give it a few years. As Tom Petty said, even walls fall down.
And as mentioned above, despite what the PGA said or did, it was the King and his court who legitimized the tournament in the public’s eyes. When Palmer (and subsequent scribes) said the PGA constituted part of the Grand Slam, the event became a major. Simple as that.
Golf’s governing bodies, along with its superstars (and humble writers) are responsible for elevating tournaments to major status. In the case of the event held at TPC Swamp People, this elevation isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.”
So go ahead. Point and laugh at the TOUR-generated hype, new trophy, new song, the fact that they don’t schedule a simultaneous Web.com event, the quote above from Spieth (or similar ones from other players), and all the #content being blasted out the back ends of every creature willing to take a bite of that big, bloated “Is THE PLAYERS ® a major”-shaped carcass. All you’re doing is denying the inevitable.
The TOUR has done everything to announce their major aspirations short of exhuming Herbert Warren Wind’s well-read bones. Every year, they will churn out more social media features and buy more ad space in golf fans’ brains. Every year, more players will echo Spieth’s words. In fact, Paul Azinger already has, as he told Eamon Lynch: “This generation has really embraced it as the fifth major moreso than players of the past…” before almost immediately trying to backtrack away from that ledge. Every year, more and more prominent gators and vultures will swoop in for a bite.
Will we know it when we see it? Will there be an Arnold Palmer-Bob Drum moment? Perhaps, if some massively prominent player reiterates Spieth’s statement (and sorry, Jordan, this ain’t 2016 — win another major or face relative obscurity). Rory has the clout, glamour, and personality to pull it off. If he were to declare THE PLAYERS ® a major, we’d all fall in line and start praising three-time major winners Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington. Tiger might as well, though his stature in the game will only fade with time. But based on a newfound love of making his opinions known in the golf world, and an unimpeachable playing resume that will undoubtedly grow in the coming years, I think there’s only one man for this job:
Regardless of who lands the final blow that sinks this carcass to the bottom of the swamp once and for all, the fact remains. That day is coming. And when it comes, all past victors will be venerated as major champions.
So really, hasn’t THE PLAYERS ®… always been a major?