Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

History of Golf’s Majors

By Mary Armstrong – published in the Las Cruces Sun News 04/08/2011

This week the Master’s Golf Tournament signals the beginning of the men’s majors.  Including this week’s event, the U.S. Open in June, the British Open in July and the PGA Championship in August comprise the majors as we know them today. 

But was it always that way?  Has there ever been a tournament that once was a major, but no longer is?  Much has influenced the recognition of major tournaments.  Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, golf writers Bob Drum and O.B. Keeler, and the relative ease and expense of travel as well as the explosion of purses in the United States have all been factors.

Historically, several tournaments stood out from the rest.  The British Open, the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, The Western Open (now known as the BMW Championship), and the British PGA Matchplay Championship.  In the 50’s the short-lived but lucrative World Championship of Golf was viewed as a “major” by its competitors as the first prize was worth ten times more than any other event at the time.

In 1930, Bobby Jones won The British Open, the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur.  At the time – and still today – the feat was unimaginable and sports writers around the globe searched for a suitable term to describe it.  George Trevor of the New York Sun wrote Bobby Jones had “stormed the impregnable quadrilateral of golf.”  Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?  Still, it was O.B. Keeler’s labeling it as the “Grand Slam” that holds true even today.  Incidentally, Wikipedia claims that Keeler borrowed the term from the card game “Bridge” and not from baseball.  Even today, Jones achievement – especially considering it required the participant to be an amateur – is viewed as the ultimate golf accomplishment.  It also set the standard that just four tournaments would be considered majors.

Whether Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts knew they would be instrumental in turning the major tournament world topsy-turvy is up for discussion.  Jones was perhaps the game’s greatest advocate for amateur golf and so it seems unlikely he would promote a largely professional event to replace either of the two amateur majors.  Regardless of the partner’s intentions, the tournament was incredibly fortunate that it was originally scheduled when sports writers were on their way back “home” from covering baseball’s spring training in Florida.  Many were more than open to spending a few days in Augusta to watch some golf.  The result was widespread publicity for the beautiful and exciting course as well as the very well-run tournament. 

The oldest of the majors is the Open Championship (we often refer to it as the British Open).  The Open was dominated by Americans in the 20’s and 30’s, but the American Tour from the 40’s onward offered unmatched purses which eventually resulted in few American stars taking the lengthy and expensive trip “across the pond”.  For a time in the interwar years The Canadian Open was considered by Americans to be the third most prestigious tournament.  Finally, in 1953 Ben Hogan ventured to Britain and won in his first attempt at the Open.  But it really wasn’t until Palmer attempted to match Hogan’s achievement in 1960 and his annual participation thereafter that the Open was able to garner the prestige and purses that kept it classified as a major.  Players were further encouraged to make the trip by the advent of the relatively quick and inexpensive transatlantic jet flights, which made it possible for players go to Britain and return without missing a single U.S. tour stop due to travel.

While the PGA was formed in 1916, the first “playing pros” organization wasn’t established until 1932.  After the War years, professional golf began to take off and through the 50’s and 60’s amateur golf dwindled in the public’s eyes owing to the rise of a “tour” of events around the nation that featured excellent play and iconic players.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s Palmer established himself, golf, and the professional tour as important cogs in the American sports machine.  It was during these golf explosion years that Palmer had a discussion with Pittsburgh golf writer Bob Drum about the modern Grand Slam and hence the modern majors.

Having already won Masters and U.S. Open, Palmer was asked by Drum about his prospects for the rest of the year.  In the typical confident, but unpretentious Palmer fashion, Arnold told Drum that he felt that if he could win The Open and the PGA Championship it would be quite an accomplishment.  Drum responded that such a feat would equate to Jones Grand Slam of 1930.  Drum spread the word and sure enough the idea of the modern grand slam and the new four majors stuck. 

Unfortunately, that year Palmer was a runner-up in The Open and finished tied for seventh in the PGA Championship (which he never won).  But the mold was cast, and over the next 50 years, the majors have remained the same. 

Since 1960, there have been a few threats to the major’s status quo.  The two greatest challenges have been The Players Championship and the Memorial Tournament.  The lack of a match play event as a major is conspicuous in its absence, and you can bet that the Brits feel even more strongly about that.  The reality is that golf has always been most exciting when played in head-to-head matches.  The current World Golf Championship – Accenture Match Play tournament could be a good candidate, but the prospects for adding a fifth major or supplanting one of the established four isn’t likely.  There has been some sentiment for the PGA to revert to match play as it was played until 1957.  However, match play events don’t fit well with the tour because either the field must be quite limited or the length of the tournament (number of days) must be expanded.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010.  She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects.  You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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