What are golf’s “major” championships?

At the conclusion of the final major championship of the year in men’s golf, it seems reasonable to ask – what is a major championship?

The four major championships – chronologically each year the Masters Tournament, the US Open Championship, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – are regarded as the pinnacle of the game, with golfers often assessed predominantly by how many of them they win (or at least challenge in).

However, the key point is that, historically, the current four majors were not so regarded. There is a tendency to judge past greats – such as Gene Sarazen or Ben Hogan – by the number of current major championships they won. This does not do justice to the fact that, when they played, what constituted a “major championship” was somewhat different. In fact, the term itself was scarcely used!

In 2014, the current major championships are officially recognised. Each carries more ranking points than any other tournament, and each is recognised by all the game’s main professional tours. However, this is comparatively recent.

The story starts in 1930, perhaps, with Bobby Jones’ completion of the quadruple – the Amateur Championship, the Open Championship, the US Amateur Championship and the US Open Championship all in one year. This was remarkable as it involved significant trans-Atlantic travel at his own expense – and he won not a penny for his endeavours. Thus, he soon quit the game but left a further indelible mark by founding the Masters Tournament in 1934, which immediately attracted all the game’s best professionals due to its prestigious founder.

By the late 1950s, the United States was the only country which could support a fully professional tour. Its best players generally regarded the Masters Tournament and the US Open (the oldest tournament played in the Americas) as the most prestigious events to win, but they had no formal status. The Western Open, the North and South Open and the PGA Championship were also deemed notably prestigious. However, top American professionals had begun not to bother crossing the Atlantic to play even the Open Championship (the oldest tournament of all) because the purse was much lower and thus only the winner could expect to cover the cost of the trip. Additionally, the Open was played under different rules (even the balls were a different size) and, in any case, often clashed with the PGA Championship. As a consequence, the Open became more of a Commonwealth title, typically won by golfers from South Africa or Australasia (Max Faulkner’s win at Portrush in 1951 was the last by a Briton until 1969).

This changed dramatically in 1960 when Arnold Palmer, the “Tiger” or “Rory” of his era, won both the Masters and US Open. He opted to cross the Atlantic to play the Open, declaring that he had to win the “British Open” (as the Americans called it) and the PGA Championship to match Bobby Jones and complete what he called a “modern Grand Slam” (a term actually borrowed from the card game Bridge). The challenge thus accepted, he missed out on that year’s Open by one stroke (but won it the subsequent two years), and never in fact won the PGA.

It is reasonable to credit Palmer with saving the Open Championship’s prestige, and also with establishing the PGA Championship as the fourth title required for a “Grand Slam”. However, it was still some time before the term “major” was used for a tournament which would contribute to a Grand Slam, and still longer before the game’s authorities formalised this status. It remained the case that majors taking place in the United States were always won by Americans – post-War until 1979 only South Africa’s Gary Player and England’s Tony Jacklin won majors as foreigners in the United States. The (“British”) Open was more competitive, often won by Australians and even by Argentinean Roberto di Vicenzo (as well as, as it happened, by Player and Jacklin).

Tony Jacklin turned into something of a pivotal figure. He won the Open in 1969 and the US Open at a canter in 1970. He was involved in “the Concession”, securing a half against the legendary Jack Nicklaus to ensure the Ryder Cup (then played between the United States and the British Isles) was halved in 1969 – one of only two occasions post-War until the extension of the matches to include continental Europe that the Americans didn’t win. Jacklin repeatedly challenged for majors over the next few years until a crushing blow at the 1972 (where his three-putt on the 17th matched by Mexican-American Lee Trevino’s holing of a bunker shot allowed the latter to win) destroyed him psychologically as a player aged just 28. He was to return, however…

Enter, in 1979, a young man named Severiano Ballesteros. It seems unbelievable now, but no Continental European had played Ryder Cup until he and Ignacio Garrido did in 1979; no Continental European had won a major until he won the Open that same year; and no European of any description had won the Masters Tournament until he did so the following year. He won both tournaments again in the early 1980s before West German Bernard Langer won the Masters too in 1985. Both were pillars in the European team which finally won a Ryder Cup that same year, and then condemned the Americans to their first ever home defeat two years later – the team captain was a certain Tony Jacklin. The Continental challenge saw the emergence of more competitive British players too – Anglo-Scot Sandy Lyle won the Open in 1985 and Englishman Nick Faldo repeated the feat two years later. Major tournaments were now established as global events (the only tournaments which attracted all the best players from all over the world) – but still lacked official standing as such. Challenged on what constituted the difference between a “major” and any other tournament, Lyle responded simply “About 100 years”.

It was Lyle whose famous fairway bunker shot to eight feet secured the UK its first ever Masters win in 1988 – it then won four in a row, as it happened. The authorities had to respond to all of this, installing “Official World Golf Rankings” in 1986 and then securing recognition of “majors” by all main tours over the next decade – meaning that money earned at a major counted towards any Tour’s total, not just the one which happened to host it.

Majors are no longer the only tournaments which attract the best players from all over the world. Four “World Golf Championship” (WGC) events – the Championship, the Matchplay, the Invitational and the Champions Event – now also do, and this is also reflected in rankings points (they count for more than a regular event but less than a “major”). The US Tour’s predominant tournament, known as The Players’ Championship, attracts a similar field and similar rankings points (sometimes even earning reference as the “unofficial fifth major”). The European Tour’s own PGA Championship is also worth extra rankings points, although rarely attracts quite the same strength of field.

For all that, the pre-eminent position of “majors” was well established by 2008, almost half a century on from Palmer’s intervention. Yet in all that time, despite dominating the Ryder Cup, only one European had won the US Open and none the PGA Championship. Enter the Irish, with Southerner Padraig Harrington winning the 2008 PGA and Northerner Graeme McDowell winning the 2010 US Open. Fellow Northerner Rory McIlroy of course trumped them by winning both over the next two years; German Martin Kaymer has also won both, and Englishman Justin Rose also added a US Open in 2013. This is an astonishingly sudden European breakthrough.

Majors have also now become truly global. In recent years Koreans, New Zealanders, Canadians, Argentineans and Germans have won them beyond the traditional powers; and Frenchmen, Japanese, Spaniards, Swedes and Danes have come second. Americans now on average win fewer than every other one – a remarkable decline over 35 years, but unquestionably good for the game in terms of global interest and participation.

What now? It is likely that the majors will maintain their prestige for some time, not least because they complement each other so neatly and all have their own quirks. The Masters Tournament (referred to outside North America sometimes as the “US Masters”) is a purely invitational tournament always played at the same course, famed also for its traditions concerning its champions (not least the “Green Jacket”). The US Open is what it says it is, an open tournament of 120 years’ standing which allows qualification as well as invitation and also has significant Amateur involvement; it is played on courses which punish wayward play and reward precision, and winning scores are frequently high (not infrequently over par). The (“British”) Open is the oldest of them all, also allowing qualification as well as invitation with the most globally spread field of all; it is played on links courses, alternating between England and Scotland (and, now, Northern Ireland) with wildly variable weather accounting for wildly variable scores. The PGA Championship (sometimes known as the “US PGA”) is universally regarded as the least prestigious of the four, yet is for professionals only and thus can frequently ensure that it has the toughest field in terms of the current rankings; courses are usually set less tough than the US Open favouring distance and resulting, generally, in lower scores (often double figures under par over the four rounds is required to win).

The ultimate challenge is to win a major on both sides of the Atlantic – thus on inland courses in the United States where the ball can be played high and positioned through draw/fade and spin, and on links courses in the British Isles where the ball must be kept low to avoid the wind but thus often needs to be run up to the hole than hoisted towards it. Only the very best players achieve this (and some of the very best still don’t).

So those are the major championships – and why!


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