Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Most Fundamental Majors Question

What makes a major? It is something we talk about every May now with the Players Championship. Tim Finchem wants to convince you that enough time has passed that the Players should be a legitimate fifth major - not just in moniker. Most of us laugh because that's ridiculous that the presenter of an event could declare the event a major and expect everyone to accept that. It is also equally ridiculous that a Tour could declare any event as being a major championship.

Grant Boone filed his Grant Me This column pre-PGA, but I had missed it. Read it yesterday and loved it, particularly the part where he talks about how majors got to be that way on the PGA Tour side. Made me ask some fundamental questions.

First, (but later in the piece) a bit of a history lesson on defining the Grand Slam:

Bobby Jones valued the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs -- the oldest events in golf, even then -- above all other championships and set out to win all four in the same year, which he did in 1930. That pursuit and achievement were awe-inspiring enough, but the legend grew because O.B. Keeler so eloquently dubbed Jones' feat as "having stormed the impregnable quadrilateral." Of course, most people didn't have Keeler's I.Q. so his moniker of those same initials didn't really stick. But the idea of winning four big events in the same year did.

Which is why Arnold Palmer -- whose first "Major" victory was at Jones' Masters in 1958 -- is reputed to have said sometime around 1960 that the modern I.Q. should be the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. By then, time had allowed those events to calcify in their significance. In 1960, the British Open turned 100. The U.S. Open began in 1895; the PGA in 1916; and even the baby of the group, the Masters, had been around a quarter century. (Plus Palmer must have given special dispensation to the Augusta "tunamint" seeing as how its co-creator Jones, via Keeler, immortalized the notion of trying to win four big events in a single season.)

At that point, it was far more reasonable, not to mention easier to say and spell, for a baseball-crazed nation to latch on to "Grand Slam," a term from Wagner's world, the Major Leagues. But those guys got it right. They borrowed the term because it fit the number of major events -- four runs score on a grand slam, four major tournaments -- as opposed to adopting the idea, then scrounging up four tournaments you think will fit the bill.

It's a good refresher, just like an Arnold Palmer - half iced tea and half lemonade. Boone uses this as ammunition against both the LPGA and Champions Tours in how they define their majors.

The LPGA has called no less than seven tournaments "Majors" through the years. Its current lineup consists of the Kraft Nabisco Championship (nee Dinah Shore), McDonald's LPGA Championship, U.S. Women's Open, and the aforementioned Women's British, an event previously sponsored by Weetabix. Nothing connotes significance quite like breakfast cereal. ("It's a major! No, it's breakfast! You're both wrong. It's a major championship and a breakfast cereal!") In 2001, with the old du Maurier in Canada increasingly wobbly in its sponsorship and finances, the LPGA yanked its "Major" label and slapped it on the Women's British. Makes perfect sense. After all, the men's Open Championship is a major. Except that one predates the American Civil War. The women's version barely predates the Carter Administration. It's not the specific tournament the LPGA chose that's the problem; it's the fact that they would think simply calling a championship a major actually makes it one.

The Champions Tour is worse. For one thing, they have five "Majors." That's more than one-sixth of the tournaments on the schedule. Some need to be stripped of that ranking, beginning with the three which have presenting or title sponsors. Generally speaking, the shorter the name of the tournament, the more prestigious it is. For example, the Masters. That's it. Not the Masters presented by Krispy Kreme. The two most important events for players age 50 and over are the Senior PGA Championship (founded in 1937) and the U.S. Senior Open (1980). You can call them majors. I'm giving the others an honorable discharge.

And he also issues a beautifully written slam at the PGA Tour and the Players.
I'm not sure which is Dumb and which is Dumber: that a tour would suddenly prop up a particular tournament as a major championship or that they'd expect us as golf fans to treat those events with any semblance of gravitas.
In short, Boone seems to be of the mind - and I agree - that majors are defined by the players (not PLAYERS) and fans and writers. The golf public determines what is most prestigious in the game, not the organizations and corporations that present these tournaments. Perhaps in another twenty years, the next great golf phenom will redefine the modern Grand Slam. Maybe the Players will be in it. Maybe it won't.

If you're in charge of defining a major championship, then, what defines it for you? And, if you had to start over today, what four (and only four) events would be the majors?

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