How did we get the modern Grand Slam, and could it ever change?

How did we get the modern Grand Slam, and could it ever change?

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No, not another article asking if The Players Championship is the fifth major. We’ve all seen plenty of those, many arguing that because it invariably has the best field of the year and prize money just a smidge below the US Open and Masters, the same as the PGA Championship and slightly more than the Open Championship, then of course it should be. The rest say four is plenty, there’s no need for a fifth, and that, in the men’s game at least, you can’t just promote or nominate your event for major-status.

The majors, or what the world considers the majors, have been established twice in the game’s history. In the first half of the 20th century, the two Opens and Amateur Championships of Britain and the US were considered majors though they weren’t universally known as such. They were the Grand Slam events – a baseball (or was it Bridge?) term used for the occasion of Bobby Jones’s victories in all four events in 1930 by Atlanta Journal sportswriter OB Keeler. The New York Sun’s George Trevor coined a wonderfully colorful term to describe Jones’s achievement, saying he had "stormed the impregnable quadrilateral of golf."

Later, Keeler wrote that Jones’s win at the 1930 US Amateur to clinch the Slam was the fourth major title in the space of four months, though he used the term as an adjective to emphasize the championship’s significance. He wasn’t referring to it as ‘a’ major.

Some of the shine was removed from Jones’s Impregnable Quadrilateral as the professional game’s prominence grew and players such as Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead emerged as superstars.  Talk of a Grand Slam more or less dried up, though in a 2010 Golf World article, Bill Fields wrote that the idea of some sort of Slam which might be considered the equivalent of Jones’s 1930 feat first arose in 1949.

“By then the Masters was gaining popularity and prestige among players and the public,” Fields said. “And after Snead won at Augusta then took the PGA (played in May), interest was building. Heading into the US Open at Medinah—where Snead would lose a heartbreaker to Cary Middlecoff—Will Grimsley of the AP wrote that a win would give Snead ‘a professional sweep comparable with amateur Bobby Jones’s grand slam of 1930.’”

The American slam probably did become a thing thanks to Snead’s efforts and Grimley’s words in 1949, but it clearly didn’t make much of a foothold as Hogan rejected the opportunity of winning the big three US tournaments in 1953 when, having already claimed the Masters and US Open, he passed on the PGA Championship in favor of the Open Championship whose dates made it impossible to compete in both (at Carnoustie, Hogan won by four).

That the PGA Championship’s dates had been set to overlap with those of the Open Championship signifies the British Open had lost the luster it had held in Jones’s day and was no longer regarded, by Americans at least, as one of the game’s most prized titles. A small purse, notoriously bad weather, a grueling Ocean crossing, the fact players had to pre-qualify and the date clash made traveling to Britain for the Open Championship less than appealing. Indeed, 1953 was Hogan’s only appearance and it’s not exactly clear why he chose to go – it was still considered important by the rest of the world, so perhaps he thought it would be nice to add it to his resume.

The Grand Slam conversation resumed in June 1960 in an airplane flying from Denver to New York following the US Open at Cherry Hills. Arnold Palmer, who had won the event with a closing 65, was traveling to Ireland for the Canada Cup (World Cup) and then to St. Andrews for the Open Championship, a tournament he had been interested in since his school days when he had read about Jones, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen winning the old Claret Jug.

Traveling with Palmer was Pittsburgh Press golf writer Bob Drum who, over cocktails, remarked to Palmer what a shame it was the growth of the professional game had diminished the prestige of the two great amateur championships and, with it, the Grand Slam.

“Well, why don’t we create a new Grand Slam?” Palmer said, apparently provoking a typically dismissive glare from Drum, who replied, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Palmer recalled in his autobiography "A Golfer’s Life" that when he suggested the Masters, both Open championships and the PGA Championship become the new Grand Slam Drum’s reaction changed and, after thinking about it for a moment, gave a snort that Palmer interpreted as ‘Well, kid, maybe you’ve got something there.’ After arriving in Ireland, Drum recounted the exchange to his friends in the British press and, before long, talk of the new Grand Slam began to surface. By then, it had become possible for professionals to compete in the Masters, US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship in the same year. The British Open and PGA’s dates were separated in 1954 and split further apart in 1965 when the PGA Championship moved to August.

George Peper, former editor of Golf Magazine and a New York Times best-selling author, says that after 1960 there was a quickly growing sense that the four events Palmer had nominated had risen above all others.

“And I would say that by the end of that decade, thanks to the dominance in those events by Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, that notion was indelible in the minds of all serious golfers,” he adds.

The first player to win the Masters and US Open in the same year following Palmer in 1960 was Jack Nicklaus in 1972 – an important year in the development of the modern Grand Slam.

“I think Herbert Warren Wind had a hand in elevating the idea of a Grand Slam,” says Fields. “He firmly believed the tournaments we now call the majors were far more important historically than what happened week to week and had a much greater significance in a player’s legacy. But what Nicklaus did in ’72 was key in hyping the perception of these four major championships as the modern Grand Slam.”

Since then, the standing of the four majors has risen exponentially, each distinguishing and distancing itself from typical tour events – the PGA Championship’s status has weakened slightly since the turn of the century, but it is still a part of the Famous Four.

The modern Grand Slam has only been established for 55-60 years, and in a fast-moving world changes can and do happen. Who knows what might be have happened if, ten years ago, Tiger Woods mentioned on Golf Channel that he regarded the Players as a major. What might happen if Jordan Spieth gets to 10 majors by 2025 then remarks to the press that he believes the Australian Open deserves major status?

For now, those, and other, potential scenarios look very unlikely and the current majors seem set in stone for all eternity. Peper likewise doubts we’ll see any, er, major shift in the majors.

“We certainly won’t have five with The Players,” he says. “The only possibility would be for there to be a major crisis of some sort, like an economic disaster or a huge loss of confidence in one of the organizers -USGA/R&A/PGA/ANGC - but I can’t imagine what would precipitate that.”

Peper insists that money, self-promotion or media hype fundamentally do not create majors.

“A tournament would need all the world’s top players to embrace it, all of them,” he says. “If it could be shown that 90 percent of them would rather win The Players than the PGA - and if all the media were then to hammer away at that for a while - I suppose a gradual shift could occur. But I don’t see that happening.”

About the author


Tony Dear

A former golf correspondent for the New York Sun, and a senior editor on Today's Golfer magazine in the UK, Dear works for a number of titles on both sides of the Pond, and has written five books on the game, the last two of which he thinks are actually pretty good. He is the golf coach of the Bellingham HS boy's team in Bellingham, Wash., and is looking forward to another cold, rainy, spring season.