Final Shots in Fifth-Major Battle

Bowing to reader demands that Gary Van Sickle’s The Players: NOT the Fifth Major be given an extended run, we’ve held onto his third act until this afternoon. (Actually, Matt Kuchar’s second-round 68 at the HP Byron Nelson Championship reminded me that I had not posted the final installment, as promised. Fortunately, it was one of those “we” promises, not an “I” promise.) Kuchar, you’ll recall, won last week’s edition of THE PLAYERS. It was his fourth PGA Tour victory and his first “fifth major.”

Or not. Gary picks up the thread with some ruminations about another would-be biggie.

Now to the last real contender, the Memorial Tournament. Jack Nicklaus founded it in Dublin, Ohio, and he has said that no, he wasn’t trying to build a major championship. Come on, of course he was! Check out the current Nicklaus.com home page:  “The Memorial Tournament has grown into one of golf’s premier events, often called the fifth major.”

Actually, it isn’t. Maybe for 15 minutes about 30 years ago. The hometown Columbus Dispatch jumped on Jack’s bandwagon early. After Roger Maltbie beat Hale Irwin in an experimental three-hole playoff in the inaugural ’76 Memorial, and Nicklaus himself won the next year, Paul Hornung wrote in the Dispatch, “The first two tournaments have been more than memorable athletic events. In that short time, they have established the Memorial as a candidate for fifth major designation.”

The Memorial was Jack’s ode to Augusta National. Concession tents were dark green. Caddies wore white jump suits. The course was immaculately maintained, and say, that par-3 12th hole over water looks familiar. Tour players were gushing in their praise. From Bob Baptist in the Dispatch before the ’81 Memorial: “When he was asked, What do you think about the Memorial’s chances of one day being a major, Mark Hayes flatly predicted, ‘One day I think it will be bigger than Augusta.’”

That’s right. Bigger than Augusta.

In 1984, Baptist quoted former Memorial champ David Graham in the Dispatch: “Nicklaus is a legend who has surpassed Bobby Jones and probably everyone else. One of these years, he’s going to retire. The only place players and fans will be able to see Jack will be Muirfield Village during the Memorial. Shades of Augusta National. You think that won’t make the Memorial a major?”

Perhaps it might have if the Tournament Players Championship hadn’t barreled right over it. A new era began in 1982 when Jerry Pate won and inaugurated the terrifyingly difficult Stadium Course and its infamous island-green 17th hole. It had a surprise—if choreographed—ending on national television in which Pate pushed tour commissioner Deane Beman and course designer Pete Dye into the lake and dived in after them.

Just that quick, the Memorial fell to second place in the Fifth Major arms race. From Ian O’Connor’s 2008 book, Arnie & Jack: “In fact, the Memorial was battling the tour’s Player Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass for unofficial honors as the game’s fifth major.  ‘Deane came up with a great idea with the Players Championship… but you can’t buy a major championship and that was sort of the effort being made,’ Nicklaus said. ‘The Memorial was his only competition… but everything he could do to put one ahead of the other, he would do and that’s always stuck in my craw.’”

It’s not as if Nicklaus didn’t see it coming. He joked that he won the first TPC event in ’74 “just in case” it became a major later, but despite winning the tour’s new flagship event three times, Nicklaus never treated them as significant wins. For obvious reasons. Just ask Deane Beman, the happily retired PGA Tour commissioner who helped create The Players from scratch, as detailed in Adam Schupak’s tale of the tour’s dramatic rise, Golf’s Driving Force: “’Bobby Jones was Jack’s model,” Beman said. ‘His goal was to win more majors than Bobby Jones. When Jack decided to build his own facility and have his own tournament, that tournament would be to him what the Masters was to Bobby Jones. And of course, our tournament stood in his way.’”

While rain often poured on the Memorial and it’s late-May date, almost the only thing that poured on the Players and its new Stadium Course was more publicity. Dye’s design was controversial. “It was like playing Donkey Kong out there,” Tom Weiskopf said, likening it to a popular video game. There was Pate, his orange ball and menacing camera shots of a trolling alligator. There was even media hype. From Golf’s Driving Force: “Before the first putt has been stroked, the first hot dog sold or the first complaint made about the rough, it has been billed as golf’s Super Bowl,” wrote Golf Digest’s Dwayne Netland. “This is quite a burden for any unborn event, no matter how noble its blood, but if the grandiose plans materialize, the Tournament Players Championship may become the sport’s fifth major event.”

Greg Larson, the golf writer then for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, raised the bar with his report from the 1985 PGA Championship: “Deane Beman was quoted in a New York Times story yesterday as calling for the TPC to be declared a fifth major. If the PGA, which begins today at Cherry Hills, is any measurement, Beman should be screaming for fourth place… After two days of walking around Cherry Hills… nothing jumps out and says, ‘Hey, this is different than the Memorial, the Crosby or the Bay Hill Classic.’”

So here we are three decades later, on the verge of a fifth major… or not.

If there is going to be a fifth major, Dan Jenkins said, it has to be The Players. Lawrence Donegan, the respected golf writer for Scotland’s The Guardian, has a different idea. “America doesn’t need any more majors,” he said, presenting a view widely shared in Europe. “It’s ludicrous that we have four majors and three of them are on one continent. Golf is becoming more global and if Asia is the new frontier, and it is, where better to have another major? The fifth major should be the Australian Open. It’s got the history, the tradition, the courses. But four’s a great number. So forget the PGA Championship—just plug in the Australian Open.”

Larson, who’s still going strong as a Jacksonville-area sports-talk radio personality since leaving his paper in ’89, thinks Pate put The Players on the short list of contenders but… “The tour was always blowing in people’s ears, ‘This is a major,’ and I think they pushed it too hard,” Larson said. “If they’d just left it alone, everybody would consider it a major by now.”

Beman is hopeful but said he never had any illusions that his tournament would get major status quickly. “The last element to become the fifth major, or to replace one of the others, is that the players need to fully understand how important it is to their enterprise and they have to fully embrace it,” he said. “The tour is reluctant to tell them that. Somebody else needs to.”

There is one other possibility, Beman believes, that might accelerate the coronation of The Players—Tiger regaining form and winning more Opens or Masters. “Then Jack may want this to become a major after all,” Beman said with a laugh. “Because he won it three times.”

If The Players is a major, the new score is: Jack 21, Tiger 15.

And Kooch 1. Thanks to Gary for his analysis.

Top 50 on TV:  Nothing this week, but Mike Van Sickle of Wexford, Pa., advanced to U.S. Open sectional qualifying after earning medalist honors with a 67 at Quicksilver Golf Club in Midway, Pa. Van Sickle, who starred at Marquette University, is a prominent blogger.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Final Shots in Fifth-Major Battle

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thank you!

    • That must be very annoying, Andrea. I’m annoyed, too, because I didn’t knowingly authorize all those e-mails. I think I’ve killed those robotic responses, but I don’t know for sure. Please alert me if you get more unwanted email.

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