This week’s Zurich Classic in New Orleans boasts a very good field: four of the top ten players in the world, three of the top money winners on the PGA Tour, and four of the top ten FedEx Cup point leaders. It also has nine 2012 tournament winners, and twelve previous winners of their own tournaments. However, their big catch is last year’s winner, and this year’s Masters Champion Bubba Watson, who is one of twelve major winners in the field. There are also a ton of international players who stopped by for some crawfish and grits before heading to the Players in two weeks.
The Zurich Open is a very good golf tournament, with a really good field, that benefits greatly from a good schedule, and a great city, but like most golf tournaments, it’s not a Major, and for reasons known only to the golf gods, it has no shot at ever becoming one.
Why not? Why are the majors the majors, and the Zurichs the Zurichs, and while we are at it, why is the Players Tournament trying so hard to become a major? The reason that question is so difficult to answer is that nobody really knows how majors become majors. There’s not a majors committee. No secret votes. No white smoke from the chimney. Apparently majors are polymorphism. One day you’re a caterpillar and the next you’re a butterfly.
As best I can tell golf writer Herbert Warren Wind started using the term back in the fifties. He said golfers ought to be judged by the major tournaments they win, but once again no one called a meeting and said okay these four are majors and the rest of your guys are not.
As a matter of fact, back when golf pros were considered little more than hustlers four, but not all, of the majors consisted of the British Open, the British Amateur Championship, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur Championship, which was Bobby Jones’ 1930 Grand Slam, and later became breakfast at the IHOP, but that’s another story.
At the same time, years before the Masters even existed, the Western Open, first played in 1899, was also considered a major, as was the British PGA Match Play Championship. There was also the North and South Open, which was played annually at Pinehurst resort in North Carolina starting in 1902, it was also considered a major by the media and the players.
In many ways, the North and South was the Masters before the Masters, but the tournament was discontinued in 1951 after a dispute between the Tour and Pinehurst’s patriarch, Richard Tufts. Then, only a year or so later, the Masters prestige would totally eclipse the Western Open when television executives checked out the weather in Illinois and then chose to spend April in Augusta. Did you see the smoke coming from the chimney?
It is hard to determine when the definition changed to include the current four tournaments. Many give credit to Arnold Palmer's 1960 season, when after winning the Masters and the U.S. Open to start the season he remarked that if he could win the Open Championship and PGA Championship to finish the season, he would complete "a grand slam of his own" to rival Bobby Jones’s 1930 feat.
Remember, in the 1940s and 1950s, very few American players made the Atlantic crossing, a notable exception being Ben Hogan’s single, victorious visit in 1953. That’s also the year of the “Hogan Slam,” which included the Masters, British Open and the U.S. Open. The PGA Championship was played at the same time the British Open was played making it impossible to win all four.
However, once Arnold Palmer and then Jack Nicklaus started making annual pilgrimages to the British Open in the early 1960s, and the PGA Championship moved to August in order not to conflict with the British Open, the current group of four major tournaments was more or less carved in stone.
So, how do majors become majors? The answer seems to be that three of today’s majors are national championships, which makes sense. However, the Masters seems to owe its status to Pinehurst’s patriarch, Richard Tufts’ being ticked-off at the Tour, and some TV executive deciding that he’d rather be in Georgia than Illinois in early April. Granted, it didn’t hurt that Bobby Jones was hosting.
Interestingly, back in the 50’s nobody talked much about who was and who was not a major. Also lost in translation is the how and why it became four and not five, or twenty-five. One guy who could never figure it out either was former PGA Commissioner Deane Beman the driving force behind the creation of the Players Tournament. It’s been said that he was so frustrated that he couldn’t control the majors that he was determined to create his own. There was even talk that he wanted to make it a head-to-head battle to the death by scheduling the Players Tournament the same week as the U.S. Open, but cooler heads prevailed.
The majors; the whys and the why nots are mysteries. It’s like the origins of life itself. How are we here? Why are we here? What is our fate? Surely, it’s one of the great questions of the cosmos. Why are there only four majors… and what ever happened to D.B. Cooper?