Leaderboard: Stuck Between Two Majors

By Dan Reardon

This year’s PGA Championship begins less than two weeks after the Open Championship concluded at Troon. Golfers steeped in the game’s tournament history know that Ben Hogan had the only legitimate opportunity to complete the modern Grand Slam (the Masters, U.S. Open, Open and PGA in the same year). Tiger Woods authored what he coined the Tiger Slam by winning all four consecutively, but not in the same year.

In 1953 Hogan had collected wins at the Masters and the U.S. Open at Oakmont and would have been favored to win the last two. But because transatlantic travel then was primarily by boat and the PGA and the Open virtually overlapped on the calendar, competing in both was difficult. Hogan opted to play at Carnoustie, where he posted his only Open Championship. But he never completed the Slam.

In contemporary times, air travel has mitigated the travel challenge Hogan faced. There is no logistical limitation keeping competitors from Baltusrol this week for the PGA Championship. But the Olympics-compressed schedule does create some special considerations for several favorites in the field.

Again drawing from history, golf’s greatest major champion, Jack Nicklaus, established a scheduling routine early in his career that he generally followed. Nicklaus used the week prior to do his major prep work, avoiding the scheduled PGA Tour event whenever possible. So convinced was Nicklaus of his strategy that in 1965 he persuaded Gary Player to arrive in St. Louis a week before the U.S. Open and practice at Bellerive Country Club. Player accepted the advice, won the Championship and completed his career Grand Slam.

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Fast forward to the summer of 2016.

RBC not only sponsors the Canadian Open, but has a roster of players representing them on Tour who were expected to play in their event last week. The current number-one ranked player in the world, Jason Day, is an RBC client. U.S. Open runner-up Jim Furyk is an RBC client. Both competed two weeks ago at Troon and this past week at Glen Abbey, as did Ernie Els, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker. All will make it three consecutive weeks out when they tee it up at Baltusrol. Furyk and Els played at the last PGA at Baltusrol in 2005. Day and the others did not. Their major routine is dictated by their corporate relationships and the quick schedule turnaround this year.

When Rory McIlroy broke through as a major winner at Congressional in 2011, he sought out Nicklaus’s counsel on ways to manage the kind of success he hoped for. Included in that lesson plan was the Nicklaus week off before the majors. McIlroy has followed his advice and will be looking for his third PGA Championship win following his standard routine.

This year’s Masters winner, Danny Willett, and Open Champion, Henrik Stenson, left their schedule empty prior to the PGA, as did last year’s major sensation, Jordan Spieth. And there are many, like U.S. Open Champion Dustin Johnson, who just keep it simple and play where they want regardless

In contrast, Phil Mickelson waited well into his career before picking up his first major and eventually hit on an opposite strategy. Lefty likes to play his way into majors. His second Masters win came after winning in Atlanta the week prior, the last time a player has done the back-to-back at a major. This year he played his way into the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open, although without a win.

At 46 Mickelson had to decide whether playing three consecutive tournament weeks or including a week of rest prior was the formula for success. He opted for the latter, perhaps because in 2005 he won the PGA at Baltusrol (playing the week prior), but mostly because recovery trumped routine.

Golfers, like most athletes, are creatures of habit, and those habits are influenced by success. For former major winners, this week’s PGA Championship has forced some decision making about those habits. For the rest of the field, with the last four majors featuring first-time winners and five of the last seven PGA Champions being maiden champions, joining the majors club will probably affect their template.

Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.

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