Why Does Golf Only Have Four Major Championships?

February 28, 2012

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Harry Vardon, the golfing great from Jersey wh...

Harry Vardon won The Open Championship six times between 1896 and 1914.

This is a question I ponder all of the time, being a golf historian. First one has to remember that coverage of golf tournaments in the infancy stages of golf was done strictly by word of mouth, or an occasional coverage of a big tournament by a local newspaper.

Golf was also a game of few players that were considered Professional golfers in its early days, and many of the top players in the game were truly amateur players. Because of this, the majors consisted of the Open Championship, the United States Open Championship, the United States Amateur and also the British Amateur Championship.

Or should I say…these were considered the major golf championships if you were an Amateur golfer.

Robert Tyre Jones Jr, won all four of these tournaments in 1930. It was deemed the impregnable quadrilateral. Aka….the Grand Slam.

This gave meteoric rise to the term “Major” when referring to golf tournaments. It was basically accepted that these were the four Majors for amateur golfers in that day and age.

This past week if you are a golf fan you likely tuned into some of the coverage of the WCG Accenture World Match Play Championship. This tournament is a match play format, where competitors play head to head against one other golfer over 18 holes. Low score does not win in match play format, but the person winning the most holes wins.

In our “modern era” of golf, there are four recognized Major Championships. They are:

  • The Open Championship
  • The United States Open
  • The PGA Championship
  • The Masters

 Let’s look at each of these and why they are currently considered a Major:

The Open Championship

Notice it is called The Open Championship, only Americans have added the word “British” to the title.

The Open Championship is considered the first true major. Why? Mainly as it has been around the longest and at the time first played (1860 at Prestwick in western Scotland) it undoubtedly brought in the strongest field in a golf tournament being organized anywhere in the world. This tournament more than any other tournament is one of the reasons if not THE reason that golf really expanded and took off and became more of an accepted sport, and not just something done by the upper middle class people in their spare time.

Early players and winners in this tournament were most often club makers, ball makers, caddies, greens keepers people schooled in a combination of all of these professions. Also due to lack of people’s ability to travel, it almost exclusively featured players of primarily from England and Scotland in its first 30 years in existence. The first winner from outside of Scotland or England was France’s Arnaud Massy in 1907. This one gets in to the realm of major championship as it was the first to the dance.

The United States Open

The United States Open was first played in 1895 in Rhode Island. Immigrants had brought the game of golf from Scotland to the Northeast portion of the United States and it was a game catching on quickly among the upper classes in society. In the early days of the tournament, most of the winners had come across to the United States and were funded to do so with the sole purpose of claiming this title, and then returning back to England or Scotland, or in some cases the professional set themselves up nicely for a full time job as a club professional after adding this trophy to their fireplace mantle.

The first American to win the title was John McDermott in 1911, (previously all were won by players native to England or Scotland) but it was really the combination of the tours of Harry Vardon, culminating with Francis Ouimet’s upset win of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913 at Brookline that really propelled this tournament – and golf for that matter – into the sports limelight in the United States. This paved the way for the popularity of Hagen and Jones in the 20’s in the golden era of sports.

The PGA Championship

The Professional Golf Association Championship – or commonly referred to as the PGA Championship – was first played in 1916, after the formal creation of the Professional Golfers Association of America (pretty hard to have a PGA championship without the PGA,isn’t it). From its inception in 1916 up until 1958, this tournament was played as a match play and not a stroke play tournament.

Due to the strength of golf in the United States, and the initial origins of it being a more grueling match play format instead of stroke play, this tournament has really been considered one of the more important tournaments throughout its entire existence.

The Masters

We are all familiar with the Masters, but it is the new kid on the block. Originally called the Augusta Invitational Tournament by founders Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones. Gene Sarazen hit the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1935, holing a shot from the fairway on the par 15th for a double eagle. This put Sarazen in a 36 hole Playoff against Craig Wood which he eventually won. Sarazen was one of the more popular players of this era and this shot, coupled with the fact that it was Jones’s tournament gave this event all the steam it needed.

While Jones always intended this to be a get together for his golfing buddies, the tournament really became considered a major during the early 1960’s for two main reasons – Sportswriters became more enamored with “counting” major championships and television started covering golf with the rivalry developing between the golf fans of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in particular.

The Forgotten Majors

 Back when the amateur tournaments were considered more along the lines of majors for the amateur golfers, there were other tournaments that were considered “Major’s” of the time for those who were golf professionals. I will mention three of them that were at least under consideration of being majors in their time.

The Western Open

In the United States, the Western Open was definitely considered a major. It began play in 1899 and just like the United States Open, the formative years of this tournament were usually won by players travelling to the US from England and Scotland. Many sources you will see will indicate that this tournament was not considered an “official” major at that time, but I would argue that back in the pre- World War II era of golf, nothing was really considered a Major outside of the four tournaments mentioned previously.

When you look at former Champions it is an impressive roll call, especially from its inception up until the 1950’s when this tournament started to go to the wayside and things at Augusta started to pick up.

The British PGA Match-Play Championship

This tournament was every bit as important to the European golf scene as the PGA Championship was to the American golf scene. The British Match Play started in 1903 and was played up until 1979. The event was sponsored by a newspaper – The News of the World, and in many cases when referencing the tournament it is called by this name and not the British Match Play.

This was the top prize money tournament in the British Golf genre, even more than the Open Championship. In the early days of the tournament, particularly pre-World War I, this tournament was assuredly considered a major by its participants and the players were without question the finest group of players on the planet year in and year out.

The World Championships of Golf

This was a tournament that did not have a long storied history as it was only played from 1946-1957. During that time however, it boasted one of the largest pay days on tour for the winner, and from 1952-1957 the winner of this tournament won the money title for the year…and by a lot.

The event provided one of the few showcases of its time for leading international players to compete against the best U.S. professionals, who rarely travelled outside of their country to play. The tournament got into a dispute with the PGA in 1958 and that essentially ended a short run for this high pay day affair for the professionals.

At the very least, the Western Open and the British Match play should be considered Major Tournaments for part of their existence. I won’t go into my personal feelings here in this article, but due to the strength of the fields in those tournaments and the perception and status those tournaments held – once upon a time at least – many of those wins should be counted for those players as major championships.

Today’s 5th Major?

In recent years, two tournaments have gained some momentum as being considered a 5th major on the professional tour.

The Players Championship

The one with the most following to make this happen is surely The Players Championship. Originally known as the Tournament Players Championship, this event started in 1974, moved to Colonial the following year, and then relocated to Ponte Vedra Beach Florida starting in 1977. It has been played at the TPC Sawgrass course since 1982 which is most known for its island green 17th that forces players to hit a short iron shot to a green surrounded by nothing other than water.

The field for this event is a bit more limited and includes almost with certainty all of the top 50 players in the world, under difficult conditions. The prize pool is enormous by any standard and this event yields a total prize purse of 9.5 million dollars as of 2011. It is also the tournament that seems to have the most tour players promoting it as a 5th major.

The Memorial Tournament

This tournament would likely fall just under the realm of the Players Championship, but is given a lot of credence on the PGA tour for a couple of reasons. First, it was founded and is still ran by Jack Nicklaus, who many consider the greatest golfer of all time. Second, the tournament is always played at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, which is considered an outstanding, beautiful and difficult golf club, and third it is one of only five tournaments on the PGA tour that are considered “invitation only” tournaments.

The course is usually set up unusually difficult, and the fact that Nicklaus has attempted to turn this into an Augusta like atmosphere adds to the psyche of the tournament. The main feature of this tournament which has been held since 1976, is that the tournament honors a past golfers who is forever enshrined in the annals of the tournament and a plaque featuring their inductions is permanently kept on the course grounds near the clubhouse.

What about the World Golf Championships?

The World Golf Events started in 1999 as three events, expanded to four events in 2000, and this year will be expanding to five events with the addition of the Tournament of Hope held in South Africa.

Let’s look at each of these individually:

The WGC Accenture Match Play Championship

In my mind this is a no brainer to be considered a major. It is the top 64 players in the world rankings playing head to head, and you have to win 6 matches to claim the title. This harkens back to the beginnings of golf when it was match play, this is arguably the toughest of any title to win in professional tournament golf.

The WGC Cadillac Championship

Has been previously under different title sponsors including WGC-American Express Championship and also WGC-CA Championship. This basically replaced the “old” tournament on the PGA tour that was held at Doral each year, so not sure that this one is elevated to the level of being considered a major in anyone’s book.

The WGC Bridgestone Invitational

Another one that used to be something else on the regular tour – basically the tournament stop at Firestone. Once upon a time this was called the World Series of Golf tournament, and while big, was never under the mention of being considered a major.

WGC-HSBC Champions

This tournament was added to the World Golf Championships in 2009, it has been played in China, so it often times get skipped by many of the US players due to travel distance.

Call it what it is!

I for one would argue that the World Golf Championships should have the World Match Play tournament recognized as a Major Championships. Why? The strength of the field is second to none, the prize money is larger than pretty much anything on tour, and the tournament is recognized around the globe, regardless of tour as a big event. You have the top 64 in the World Golf rankings so there are truly no fluke winners. This is the best of the best and a truly international field.

Time for us to put away outdated views of sportswriters from the 1960’s and earlier. Golf needs to do the right thing here and consider that the number of Major tournaments does not have to be limited to just 4, but instead awarding that distinction of those events that were or are considered to be the biggest and best tournament of the era in which they are played.

Until next time, Stay Classy Cruden Bay, Scotland!


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One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. fred
    Mar 01, 2012 @ 12:23:33

    You love golf AND Mexico? Ok, you need to check out the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Playa del Carmen, right near Cancun. It’s a great way to see some of the most beautiful vistas Mexico has to offer. If you missed It, check out this video recap: http://bit.ly/wPLZng


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