Since 1980 I have been covering golf’s grandest events and generally that emphasis focuses upon the game’s premier events — the four major championships. I have been on scene for over 100 majors and the flavor and essence of each of them is clearly different and in their own ways compelling.
But which of the four is the first among equals?
The Masters has the benefit in being the first of the four. Coming out of a long winter has golfers everywhere looking to the season ahead. It helps that the event is tied to the legendary Bobby Jones and that the systematic manner in which the event is run is done with total attention to detail. The course has been tremendously altered from its original vision by Jones and Alister MacKenzie and many wonder if the premise of Augusta National being the inland version of The Old Course at St. Andrews has been completely turned on its head.
The US Open is the championship of American golf. It is the game’s second oldest major and is generally played at some of the finest golf clubs — most notably Shinnecock Hills this past June. However, the United States Golf Association (USGA) has been criticized for poor administration of the event with questionable venues — Chambers Bay and Erin Hills in ’15 and ’17 respectively. Followed by poor rules management — the ’16 Open at Oakmont and the failure to keep the course playing consistently with this year’s championship at Shinnecock Hills.
The PGA Championship has long been viewed as the lesser of the three events. The event commenced as a match play event but has long been a stroke play event. For years a number of venues selected were inferior. That has changed recently but the PGA Championship has long sought an identify that would elevate its overall status. For the final time this year’s event — commemorating the 100th event — will be played in August at Bellerive in St. Louis. That will change next year when the PGA Championship is played in May — with Bethpage Black on Long Island serving as host. The May time frame may serve the event well given how it is placed between The Masters and US Open.
That leaves The Open Championship.
In my mind, the event is the one that stands just a bit beyond that of the US Open. Why? Here’s a few reasons.
First, The Open is the game’s oldest major event. Dating back to 1860. Literally Abraham Lincoln was not even President of the United States when that happened.
Second, the desire to always play a links course is the defining character element of the event. The intersection of the air and ground games is key in identifying the best player able to navigate his golf ball throughout the round and over the course of the event.
Third, the need for players to constantly adjust — improvising shots — as the situations demand is something none of the other three majors provides to that degree.
Fourth, the global recognition that comes from being recognized as a golfer of high caliber. Many players have used the platform of The Open to assert themselves. The likes of Gary Player in 1959 at Muirfield is one example, Seve Ballesteros coming onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 1976 at Royal Birkdale. More recently, Rory McIlroy’s dominating win at age 25 in ’14 at Hoylake is another example.
Fifth, The Open is the only major held outside America. Just that fact alone means the need for many of the competitors to move away from the predictable patterns provided by the PGA TOUR.
Sixth, The Open also provides a place for all who are interest in the event to participate. The incredible array of various vendors bringing their respective goods is just one aspect. The Open’s Spectator Village is another intersection where the game is celebrated and promoted — for young and old — long time golfers and those just beginning.
And finally, The R&A deserves mention too. The organizers of this great event have wisely set courses up without artifice. There have been exceptions — the ’99 Open at Carnoustie comes quickly to mind. But, on the whole, the R&A has allows the conditions to be whatever Mother Nature provides. In certain instances that has meant courses that have played on the slower side. This week at Carnoustie promises to be a far different presentation. One comparable to the likes of Muirfield in ’13, Hoylake in ’07 and The Old Course in ’00.
The Open is reminder of the game’s ultimate roots — Scotland. The event tests every aspect of golfer’s game — the physical along with the mental. Being able to craft shots and absorb the breaks — both good and bad — is what cements the fiber of any prospective champion. In sum, The Open is the quintessential event where the meaning of the words, “Champion golfer of the year,” is an affirmation not only of the person being saluted but a vital recognition on what this grand event has meant for so many years — both years past and those to come.