Golf: What Makes a Championship Major?

The best men golfers in the world are in Rochester, N.Y. this week to play a tournament at Oak Hill Country Club. It’s the championship of the Professional Golfers Association of America. It happens every August, and it’s considered a “major” championship, one of four parts of the biggest deal in the game. But what makes it that way? Why are the four major championships of men’s golf elevated above the tournaments that happen every other week?

Unlike most sports, golf’s landscape just sort of grew this way and has now been trimmed and gardened into an acceptable estate where greatness can be tested. There’s no official “majors” office that handed down an edict naming the Masters Tournament, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship (also know as the British Open) and the PGA Championship the pinnacle of golf achievement. But everyone in the sport, and in the world of sports at large, accepts those events as the leading tournaments in golf.

Rory McIlory won the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, near Charleston, S.C. Despite the difficulty of getting to the course, the event was very well attended.

Rory McIlory won the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, near Charleston, S.C. Despite the difficulty of getting to the course, the event was very well attended.

Note the key difference: in Major League Baseball, there is a playoff structure that leads to the World Series. This yields a champion from baseball’s top world league. Same with the National Football League and the Super Bowl, the National Hockey League and the Stanley Cup, and on and on.

Not so in men’s golf. The undisputed top league, the PGA Tour (not related to the PGA of America), has a season-long points competition that leads to a playoff series and a single champion. Most of the world’s best players find their way to the PGA Tour and have a crack at this competition, called the FedEx Cup, so it wouldn’t be fair to say that golf’s other top leagues in Europe and Asia aren’t represented. Still, modern golf consciousness continues to focus on majors as the chief marker of greatness. Tiger Woods, once again statistically world golf’s No. 1 player and always its biggest draw, has won 14 major championships. He continues to define his quest in life as the overtaking of the record of 18 professional major wins by Jack Nicklaus.

There’s no rhyme or reason in the structure of majors that would shed light on why they are great. The Masters Tournament, the only one played over the same golf course every year (Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.) is run by that private club in exactly the manner its promoter sees fit, with no outside influence whatever. Golf’s top organizations assist, but do not make policy or decisions. The club, and only the club, does that.

The U.S. Open is put on as one of 13 annual championships by another private group, the United States Golf Association, whose other tasks include the administration of the game’s rules. This it does with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, the private group that stages the Open Championship. And the PGA of America, whose championship is this week at Oak Hill, is a trade organization of about 28,000 golf professionals who work at golf clubs, retail stores, teaching centers and the like. In a sense, it’s not even the membership’s championship; most of them don’t play side by side with the touring professionals whose names we see in the sports pages all summer.

And today’s majors weren’t always the majors. Only one player, a well-to-do lawyer from Atlanta named Bob Jones, has ever won all four men’s major championships in one year. Jones, an amateur, did it in 1930. He happened to have been one of the finest players ever to take up a club; to say he is revered in golf circles more than 80 years after his supernova of popularity and more than 40 years after his death is unavoidable understatement. But when he won, the four majors were the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur, and the British Amateur. The last two still exist, and they’re still important. But they are no longer majors.

Why? Because there never has been any official bestowal of majorhood. It was the press, and then the attention and consent of the players, that germinated that status and got it to grow. The PGA Championship existed in 1930, when Jones was at the top of his game. But as an amateur, he couldn’t enter. In those days, golf professionals at blue-blood clubs were seen more as servants than as the valuable professionals they were. Sometimes, they really had to enter by the back door. Despite the massive (for the time) salaries earned by Babe Ruth, it was Jones, Ruth’s rival for popularity, who fired the imaginations of many sports fans, mainly because he was an amateur. It’s pretty much agreed that if the brash, misbehaving Ruth had not been playing the nation’s most popular sport and golf had been seen as a more populist endeavor, Jones would have easily eclipsed Ruth in public acclaim. As it was, he was more of a hero than written history has led today’s sports fans to believe.

And he did it mostly by winning majors. Now, with pro athletes having overcome the old preference for amateurism, majors till rule. How have they endured? Wiith all this disconnection-but-cooperation among golf’s ruling bodies, what makes a major a major?

  • They’re hard. The Masters, at Augusta National, is difficult because of the greens, whose undulations and extremely close-mown grass make putts roll frighteningly fast. They’re just plain hard to control; the player who hits his ball to the wrong portion of the green is doomed to take too many putts to hole out. Hardly ever does a first-timer win. The other majors visit a rotation of courses around the United States and the United Kingdom; each sponsoring organization plans these rotations years in advance. Almost every course offers a menu of difficulty designed to weed out those whose games are not at their top gear: narrow fairways bordered by ankle-high rough that is hard to chop out of, small and/or fast greens, seaside winds and other weather, collections of bunkers (sand traps), ponds, streams, and oceans that seem to exert magnetic forces on golf balls, and more.
  • They have the best fields. No pro golfer worth his salt misses these tournaments. The best players look to make their marks at majors; if you win here, you have beaten the best. Winning a major, even just one in a career, elevates you from an also-ran to a plaque-worthy hall of famer. That’s only right; it’s hard to win any tournament, but very hard to win majors. Ask any winner who has tried to control his heartbeat and breathing over the last few holes. Quite a few literally cannot remember how they managed it.
  • They are endurance contests. All men’s golf tournaments are 72 holes over four days. They require patience and fitness, sometimes in the extreme. During my reporter days, I covered a PGA Championship in Tulsa, Okla. during which on-course temperatures soared past 100℉ every day. Walk five miles in that, stopping every so often to think out and execute a difficult shot using an inherently unnatural motion, and you’ll soon understand the magnitude of the accomplishment.
  • The greats have won here. Are you great? Pro golfers have, on the whole, gotten where they are because they are a low-blood-pressure lot. In a game where you usually don’t win, a sport fraught with frustrations even for the best players, you can’t excel if you let things bother you too much or too long. Still, every player in a major will readily admit that the pressure is on from the get-go. Like the generations that succeeded Ruth and Gehrig in Yankee Stadium, golfers know full well that they and their dreams are on the line when they walk, quite literally, in the footsteps of their idols. Yes, sports are recreation, but professional sports are a job, one fueled by childhood dreams. Knowing that you, your life choices, and how they will measure up is the front-and-center question — that’s a vise grip on the psyche. The top players want that chance. But that doesn’t loosen the vise any.

All this and more makes golf’s major championships annually fascinating. (The same is true for majors in the game’s women’s and senior precincts, but the men’s majors remain the biggest attraction.) In recent years, with so much skill at the game’s elite level, golf’s most avid fans have sometimes bemoaned the battle-of-attrition aspect of modern majors. It sometimes seems as if they are designed (usually by course setup) to identify a survivor instead of a real victor. Still, majors aren’t any less popular year to year. In a sport where there are big money events to play in for 40 or 50 weeks per year, the majors and their trophies and their career-validating effect — not their money, mind you — are still the pillars of achievement in golf.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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