News & Opinion

Masters stands out as America’s major

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Should the Masters Tournament be one of golf’s four major championships?

Eight-seven players, the size of this week’s field, does not usually make for a major championship, unless a green jacket and Augusta National Golf Club, the best tournament course in the world, are involved.

The Masters always has been more of an intimate gathering than a major championship, not only because of the limited size of the field – rarely more than 100 – but because of the participants.

The top 50 players in the world have been part of the Masters via different qualifying methods or by special invitation. With the advent of the Official World Golf Ranking in 1986, Augusta National eventually relied on the computer ratings and now invites any player in the top 50 at various times of the year. Former Masters champions and key amateur winners also receive invitations, which can lead to a significant reduction in the number of legitimate contenders for the green jacket. 

Since its inception in 1934 as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, Bobby Jones’ spring event has been held at the same course, which tends to benefit certain players. Lee Trevino, a six-time major champion who lacked only a green jacket for the career Grand Slam, always felt disadvantaged at Augusta National because of how the course requires a high ball flight.

So, Alister MacKenzie’s 1933 classic design plays favorites. But the course, the tournament and all of its trappings are what make the Masters the American major.

Everything about the tournament gets players and fans salivating once the calendar flips to a new year. The three-month run-up to the Masters tantalizes with a perk that, for golf’s elite players, offers not so much to do with money – although the winner will receive about $2 million – and more with the green jacket.

The U.S. Open used to be universally regarded as the nation’s premier golf event, but that sentiment has shifted in recent years. The U.S. Golf Association’s penchant for long, narrow courses defined by high rough and rock-hard greens makes our national championship more of an endurance test than a proper golf examination.

It’s the type of test that past USGA executives have hailed year after year.  

Every player knew what to expect when he stepped onto such brutally difficult U.S. Open venues as Baltusrol, Oakmont or Shinnecock Hills, the site of this year’s Open. Now, after recent missteps in course setup, who knows what to anticipate? Given the public backlash, though, the setup won’t be what it used to be.

The PGA Championship started in 1916 as a match-play tournament and eventually became one of the four majors after the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur no longer were considered part of the “Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf,” as famed golf writer O.B. Keeler called the four majors, or Grand Slam.

When that change occurred is unclear. Even the former Western Open was considered at some point to be a major championship. By the 1960s, the PGA, which had shifted from match play to stroke play after 1958, was considered to be one of golf’s top prizes.

Since switching to stroke play, the PGA has been searching for a distinct identity, but often at lesser courses and with a large percentage of PGA professionals diluting field strength.

The British Open is the world’s major championship, given its administration by the R&A. It is held on a rota of U.K. seaside links courses to satisfy its goal of finding the “champion golfer of the year.”

All of which takes us back to the Masters.

Of the four major championships, the Masters generally is regarded as the title most coveted by golf’s top competitors.

Those who do earn a green jacket often go on to win another one or add another major championship to their resume.

Since 1970, only 13 players who won the Masters have not won a second major championship. In that same era, 20 Masters champions have won another major title, including a who’s who of the game: Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth.

Augusta National has been the holy grail for fans. Any serious golf fan knows the significance of Amen Corner, the Butler Cabin and the Eisenhower Tree.

When the roars left the back nine in the mid-2000s, after the first round of course lengthening (aka Tiger-proofing), an outcry from fans and the media prompted the Masters to change the setup, and the excitement returned.

Nothing in golf is more compelling than a Sunday afternoon on the back nine of the Masters.

Would it be easier to call the Masters a major if the field were larger and stronger from top to bottom? Or, if the tournament were to rotate among different courses?

But if that happened, the Masters wouldn’t be the Masters, the first major of the year, America’s major.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli