Sport Golf

Thursday 14 November 2019

McIlroy applying wise attitude towards grand Augusta notions

Rory McIlroy hits out of a sand trap along the 11th fairway during first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando
Rory McIlroy hits out of a sand trap along the 11th fairway during first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando

Dermot Gilleece

As a victim of his own remarkable skills, Rory McIlroy is currently being subjected to totally unreasonable pressures in the build-up to the US Masters. Not even Jack Nicklaus was made to handle the same expectations at the same age in pursuit of the so-called career Grand Slam.

Often controversial and invariably intriguing, this particular subject can have only one true expert. And Bobby Jones, who uniquely conquered the golfing pinnacle of US Open, British Open, US Amateur and British Amateur titles in 1930, had very clear views on the matter, later in his life.

In the course of a letter written in September 1967, a year after Nicklaus had become only the fourth player to land four different Major titles, Jones was scathing in his criticism of attempts to tinker with his achievement simply to accommodate changed times. There was no intention of diminishing the Bear, whom he happened to admire greatly.

He wrote: “The only man who could ever be justified in considering himself the world champion of golf, would be one who had won the Open Championship of both Great Britain and the United States in the same year. Offhand, I think the record will show that this feat has been accomplished by only three men in the history of the game — Gene Sarazen did it in 1932, Ben Hogan in 1953 and I did it twice, in 1926 and 1930.” Lee Trevino (1971), Tom Watson (1982) and Tiger Woods (2000) would later be added to this list.

Jones went on: “The professionals and the television people have now come up with a new ‘Grand Slam’, accomplished by winning the Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the PGA; and by winning these, not in one year, but in a lifetime.

“I must confess that I get pretty tired of hearing about the only four men (Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus and Gary Player) who have won all four of the (professional) major championships. Obviously, no professional can ever win the four championships comprising my Grand Slam; but neither can any amateur ever win the phony Grand Slam (the PGA is confined to professionals only) created by the pros and the television people. I think if you can win both the British and US Opens in one year, this should be enough.” No equivocation there!

When making such pronouncements, Jones always chose his words carefully, conscious of his status within the game. And one could imagine his awareness of golfing giants from his own era — men such as Walter Hagen, Bryon Nelson and Sam Snead — who had to settle for three out of the four. Were they lesser champions because of the one that got away, as would also become the case for Arnold Palmer and Watson?

As things stand, Woods, who matched Hogan’s achievement of three Majors in a row in 2000 before going on to win the so-called Tiger Slam at Augusta the following April, is the only addition to the quartet of Jones’ day. And, of course, McIlroy would extend that number to six through victory in the Masters, just as Phil Mickelson would were he to capture the US Open at Chambers Bay two months later.

Where newspapers shaped the thinking of my generation on such matters, the voracious appetite of television has proved to be insatiable in setting often forbidding standards for the modern player. So, it is not enough that McIlroy should be the overwhelming favourite going into the Masters: there are almost daily reminders of the career Grand Slam as a crucial, by-product of success.

Ironically, all of this was made possible only by the elevation of the Masters to Major status, and opinions vary as to when this actually happened. Some believe it dates back to 1942, when Nelson beat Hogan in an 18-hole play-off for the title, a view confirmed in 1947 when Leonard Crawley, the highly-regarded correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, acknowledged only two American Majors, the US Open and the Masters.

By way of further muddying the waters, this meant the PGA Championship, which was a match-play event until it changed to stroke-play in 1958, didn’t qualify in his view. Meanwhile, the doyen of American golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, claimed the Masters didn’t become a Major until 1954 when Hogan lost another play-off, this time to Snead.

Another suggestion was that its enhanced status stemmed from television images of a stunningly beautiful venue being beamed into American homes. This began modestly in 1956 when CBS delivered a half-hour of coverage on Saturday and Sunday from stationary cameras covering only the 15th to 18th holes. By 1958, there was 90 minutes of Sunday coverage and a year later, the renowned producer Frank Chirkinian moved in to revolutionise the entire process.

All the while, Augusta National had its chairman, Clifford Roberts, as a master strategist behind the scenes. It was he who prevailed upon Jones to compete in the early stagings of the event, cleverly arguing that the great man couldn’t invite his friends without sharing the fairways with them.

Roberts was also aware of Major aspirations being helped immeasurably by the involvement of Jones, even though the great man had originally objected to his chairman’s recommendation of the Masters title as being too presumptuous. And with the PGA becoming a stroke-play event in 1958, it is reasonable to conclude that the four Majors as we now know them, were effectively formalised around that time.

All of which indicates that when Sarazen (1935) and Hogan (1953) secured their elusive fourth Major, they would have had no awareness of the later significance these sporting achievements would adopt.

Meanwhile, for others, it would never become an issue. Nelson, for instance, won the Masters, US Open and PGA but made only one appearance in the British Open, when finishing fifth behind Henry Cotton at Carnoustie in 1937. Hagen, on the other hand (four British Opens, five PGAs, two US Opens) made four attempts at the Masters but at a time when he was considerably past his best. Notable among those who seriously chased a fourth Major without success, however, were Snead (17 US Open attempts after 1949), Palmer (33 PGAs from 1961) and Watson (22 PGAs from 1982). Against this background alone, McIlroy has plenty of time.

Indeed time remains comfortably on his side, even when compared with Nicklaus. When he secured his third different Major by winning the 1963 PGA Championship at Dallas Athletic Club, it was almost three years before The Open completed the elusive fourth at Muirfield in June 1966. For his part, the Holywood star will have been in possession of The Open a mere nine months when he tees it up at Augusta.

In the wake of a dramatic back-nine collapse in 2011, McIlroy admirers pored over the tea-leaves, fretting as to what the future might hold for the gifted youngster. Least concerned of all was the player himself, who knew that at 21, there would be many further opportunities of donning a green jacket.

Four years on and with four Majors in his locker, an admirable attitude is now being applied to a different challenge.

Stirred by the prospect of that seductive carpet being laid at his feet once more, he’s confident there’s a good chance the title will one day come his way.

He’ll know when all the pieces are in place, late on Sunday afternoon around Amen Corner; when the time is right to deliver on career-Slam expectations and get another milestone out of the way. And it doesn’t have to be this year.

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