Allure of career Grand Slam spans generations
Five-man club includes Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus, Woods
April 06, 2015
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Rory McIlroy (Masters) and Phil Mickelson (U.S. Open) are each one major shy of a career Grand Slam. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's hard enough to win one PGA TOUR event. To be the absolute best that particular week over the course of 72 holes.
But to peak four times, the right four times, in one year? And handle near-suffocating pressure, not to mention, hold up under the weight of history, in the process?
Well, never say never. But here's the deal. The next person who wins the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship in a single season will be the first.
Just five players have achieved professional golf's Grand Slam for an entire career. The two most recent members of the Career Slam club -- Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus -- happen to be prolific collectors of Grand Slam hardware. Nicklaus has won 18 professional majors while Woods is four behind, and they have hit for the cycle three times each.
And that's not to diminish the accomplishments of Gene Sarazen, who was the first to win the career Grand Slam in 1935, or Ben Hogan and Gary Player who followed him. Owning all four of those most coveted of trophies is a sure-fire invitation into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
That's why so much focus this week at the Masters will be on 25-year-old Rory McIlroy. He has claimed three legs of the Career Slam -- and, incidentally, has won the last two majors -- and now only needs a Green Jacket to become the sixth member. Later this year, Phil Mickelson will get his second shot at the Career Slam when he plays the U.S. Open.
But the fact remains. No one has ever won all four in the same year.
Only one player has won the first three in succession -- Ben Hogan in 1953. Since the dates for the Open Championship and PGA Championship essentially coincided that year, there was no chance for Hogan to even enter the final major after winning by four strokes at Carnoustie in his lone appearance across the pond. Player once said that had Hogan been able to play the PGA Championship, he would have surely won it to complete the single-season Slam. But because the schedule didn't set up for him, it was "one of the saddest things I've seen in golf, because he won all three," Player said.
That said, a player has won the first two majors just seven times, most recently Woods in 2005. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer came the closest to matching Hogan, both finishing one stroke back in second at the Open Championship in 1972 and '60, respectively.
Ben Hogan completed the career Grand Slam in 1953, with a victory at the Open Championship. (Photo courtesy of Hulton archive)
Truth be told, Woods has come the closest to the true Grand Slam. He won the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship in 2000, then six months later added the Masters to his haul. And what came to be known as the Tiger Slam -- he did, after all, own all four trophies at the same time -- was certainly impressive if not completely conventional from a historical perspective.
McIlroy's chance at the career Grand Slam comes this week at the Masters -- at 25, he would be the second youngest to accomplish the feat, and the Green Jacket would be his third straight major.
Mickelson didn't win his first major until 2004 when he was 33. He has won five total and can cement his career Grand Slam credentials at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Mickelson has six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, and this will be his second opportunity to complete the Slam -- he tied for 28th at Pinehurst last year.
Interestingly, it has been 51 years since two players have had the chance to complete the career Grand Slam in the same season. Player picked up his third leg at the 1962 PGA Championship, while Nicklaus won the season's final major a year later to earn his third of the four.
The diminutive South African then had to beat Kel Nagle in an 18-hole playoff at the 1965 U.S. Open to win his career Grand Slam. A year later, Nicklaus, who was 26 at the time, closed with 70 at Muirfield to beat Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas by one stroke at the Open Championship, earning his first of three career Slams.
Perhaps to demonstrate how difficult the task is of completing the career Grand Slam, consider the players who didn't do it.
Palmer never won the PGA Championship.
Sam Snead, the PGA TOUR's leader in career wins, never won the U.S. Open.
Tom Watson, like Palmer, never won the PGA Championship.
Lee Trevino never won the Masters, never feeling that Augusta National suited his game.
"I have no ambition to win all of the four major championships," Trevino once said (in the book, "Grand Slam Golf"). "I just want to win tournaments, whether it's the Screen Door Open or the Canadian Bacon Open."
For the majority of professional golfers, however, golf's Grand Slam events offer the greatest opportunity to achieve legendary status. Win all four majors in a career, and you've done something few have. Win all four in a single season and ... well, you've done the impossible.
So what makes the Grand Slam so difficult to achieve?
Many things are hard to quantify. The caliber of the competition, for instance. The pressure that mounts exponentially the closer you get to the 72nd hole. The vagarities of the weather.
More than the intangibles, though, are the golf courses, frequently set up on the brink of extinction but always stylized to test all 14 clubs in the bag. Only one major, the Masters, returns to the same course every year; each of the other three has a rota, of sorts, that brings a new physical challenge each season.
And even Augusta National, arguably the most recognizable golf course on the planet, has undergone a personality transplant in recent years.
Don't worry -- the azaleas and dogwoods still bloom in abundance. But what was a bombers' course in Woods' heyday -- he won by 12 in 1997 -- now appears to favor left-handers like defending champion Bubba Watson, who has won two of the last three Masters, and Mickelson, who has won three Green Jackets since 2004.
A U.S. Open venue, on the other hand, tests accuracy off the tee and in some cases brute strength, given the height and the gnarly composition of the thick rough. And once you find the putting surfaces, expect lightning-fast greens.
The Open Championship is always played on one of the United Kingdom's storied links. Often barren and dry, the courses, populated by gaping bunkers with sodded walls, as well as fairways defined by hip-length fescue, call for the ball to be played low to the ground. And when the winds whip off the water, God forbid the rains should follow, the examination becomes even more of a test.
The PGA, meanwhile, showcases a difficult course -- but one more in tune to what players find week-to-week on the PGA TOUR. Challenging, egalitarian even, but birdies can be made.
Jack Nicklaus completed the career Grand Slam at the 1966 Open Championship; Gary Player did so at the prior year's U.S. Open. (Chris Condon/Getty Images)
Of course, the Masters and the PGA Championship weren't even on the Grand Slam radar screen when Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, Open Championship and British Amateur in 1930. Those were the majors of his day, and the Atlanta Journal's O.B. Keeler, who was the authority back then on all things Bobby Jones, was the first to label it the Grand Slam, taking a phrase used in contract bridge to win all 13 tricks.
George Trevor of the New York Sun had an even more flowery description: "This victory, the fourth major title in the same season and in the space of four months, had now and for all time entrenched Bobby Jones safely within the 'Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf,' that granite fortress that he alone could take by escalade, and that others may attack in vain, forever."
In 1950, the Associated Press called Jones' feat "the supreme athletic achievement of this century."
Jones himself wrote in his autobiography that, "I wasn't quite certain what had happened or what I had done. I only knew that I had completed a period of most strenuous effort, and that at this point nothing more remained to be done." He then retired from golf, and with it, the shift of the Grand Slam eventually focused on professional golf.
Jones, the celebrated amateur, himself contributed to that shift. He founded a tournament known in 1934 as the Augusta National Invitation, and five years later, it would be called the Masters. The tournament, elevated in stature by Jones' presence and the allure of Augusta National, as well as the legendary albatross by 1935 winner Gene Sarazen, became one of the must-win events on the calendar.
But it wasn't until 1960 that 'Grand Slam' truly became a part of professional golf's lexicon.
That year, Palmer won the Masters and U.S. Open. According to Golf Digest, Bob Drum, the golf writer at the Pittsburgh Press and Arnie's good friend, wrote a story after Palmer's win at Cherry Hills that noted the victory "moved him over the second hurdle in his bid for present-day golf's Grand Slam."
As Palmer and Drum were flying to Scotland for the Open Championship at St. Andrews, they talked about how adding the Open Championship and PGA Championship would complete a modern Grand Slam. Drum then began discussing the idea with his colleagues in the media, and the idea took off.
Sarazen and Hogan were then credited with career Grand Slams. Player and Nicklaus followed in the mid-1960s. It would be more than 30 years before a fifth player joined the club.
Tiger Woods completed the career Grand Slam at the 2000 Open Championship at St. Andrews. (David Cannon/Getty Images)