Thursday 14 December 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Major shake-up heralds final farewell to August

Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm walk onto the ninth green during the second round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm walk onto the ninth green during the second round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Memorable moments have been gifted to the PGA Championship through its long association with the month of August. Now, the event is to be part of what might be termed a Major new order, transforming the prized objective dominating Jordan Spieth's thoughts this weekend.

A treasured highlight, which could have happened only in August, concerned a 1996 meeting of two iconic sporting figures, three days after the Atlanta Olympics had passed into history. Jack Nicklaus, still a Major competitor though he would miss the cut by a stroke, had just completed nine holes of practice for the 78th PGA when he was approached by a golf buggy.

The scene was Valhalla, the course Nicklaus designed in Louisville, Kentucky, birthplace of the world's greatest boxer. "We're not going to fight, are we?" the Bear joked to Muhammad Ali, then in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. With that, the two of them embraced before posing for photographs with fists raised in classic boxing mode.

Nicklaus was informed that Ali wished to share with him the commemorative gold medal he had received during the Olympics as a replacement for the one earned, but later lost from the 1960 Games. In the event, the Bear placed it around Ali's neck with a whispered message.

"I told him to take care of himself, and I didn't get a response," he said. "I understand that. He put his head over and sort of touched my cheek with his head. That was his way of saying hello, I think. That's the way I took it."

It was the first time the pair had met. "I've always been a great fan of his," added Nicklaus. "He's been good for his sport and sport, period."

The PGA's charming slogan, 'Glory's Last Shot', would have been resonating for Spieth last week as he prepared for his attempt at becoming only the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam. It also adopted special significance in 2000, as the third leg of what became the 'Tiger Slam', which Woods completed eight months later with victory in the 2001 US Masters.

Seven years previously, the PGA boasted arguably the finest 54-hole leaderboard in its history, featuring five challengers who between them had captured 19 Major titles - Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman and Lanny Wadkins. In the event, victory went to Paul Azinger, who beat Norman in a play-off.

From an organisational standpoint, however, 1958 at Colorado Springs became a landmark staging after officials succumbed to growing pressure by changing the PGA from a match-play to a stroke-play format. As a reward, this was the first PGA to be covered by TV, with CBS broadcasting three holes along with the winner Dow Finsterwald's award ceremony.

The poet Coleridge once observed that summer in these parts had "set in with its usual severity." Though American officials may anticipate kinder treatment from the elements, it seems inevitable that the weather will impose some constraints when the PGA moves to a May date - the week prior to Memorial Day - in 2019.

Still, there's a certain synergy to the idea of the four Majors being staged in April, May, June and July, while the Players Championship returns to its old slot in March. Among other things, it means that schedule adjustments won't be necessary for the Olympics in 2020, though there is the knock-on effect on this side of the pond of having to switch the BMW PGA Championship from May to September, starting in 2019. This will mean Wentworth action at a time of year once dominated by the World Match Play Championship.

Interestingly, these changes haven't been accompanied by familiar utterances about the Players becoming a fifth Major. And you can bet that its prospects of moving ahead of the Masters as the first one of the year would get a particularly cold hearing around Augusta National.

Opinions vary as to when the Masters was accorded Major status. Some claim it dates from 1942 when Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan in a notable 18-hole play-off.

Interestingly, in 1947, Leonard Crawley wrote in The Daily Telegraph of two American Majors, the US Open and the Masters, which meant that the PGA, didn't measure up as far as he was concerned. However, the doyen of American golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, claimed that the Masters became a Major in 1954 when Hogan lost another play-off, this time to Sam Snead.

As for the Grand Slam, it first came into the golfing lexicon in 1930, when Bobby Jones won the US Open, British Open, US Amateur and British Amateur titles - the so-called Impregnable Quadrilateral. That's when the notion of four golfing Majors took hold, though the possibility of another amateur emerging to match Jones seemed extremely remote.

Greater realism was reflected in events of 1960, when Arnold Palmer won the Masters and US Open before gaining his first experience of links golf when partnering Snead to victory in the Canada Cup at Portmarnock. From there, he headed for an Open Championship debut in its centenary staging at St Andrews.

As it happened, Palmer invited Bob Drum, a golf-writing friend from Pittsburgh, along on his plane because Drum's editor didn't consider the Open sufficiently important to warrant official coverage, even in Palmer's home-town paper. The story goes that during the flight Palmer happened to ask Drum what the reaction would be if he were to win the Open and then the PGA two weeks later.

We're told that Drum, a man never at a loss for words, replied that it would be the equivalent of Jones's Grand Slam. Whereupon Palmer reportedly declared: "That's what I'll do. I'll win the Grand Slam."

Sadly, he didn't. But that fateful conversation between himself and Drum is believed to have given birth to the modern Grand Slam. And it evolved into the career Grand Slam when Gary Player (1965) then Nicklaus (1966), matched the prior achievement of Hogan and Gene Sarazen by winning all four Majors within no particular time frame.

Indeed it was only in the 1970s that Nicklaus gave serious thought to the idea of doing it in the same year, though it soon became a fleeting ambition.

History has ordained that next year's farewell to August will be marked in an appropriate manner. It happens to be the 100th staging of a war-interrupted event, which was launched back in 1916.

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