The Majors


By John Feinstein

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WHAT DOES IT TAKE to win a major championship and reach the absolute pinnacle of golf? Through a season of the four tournaments — the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship — known collectively as the majors, John Feinstein takes us where the television cameras never go, both off the links and “inside the ropes”, as he reveals the special challenges and rituals, the frustrations and exhilaration, that mark the lives and careers of the world’s greatest golfers.


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April Flowers


Playing for History

Shortly before 6 o'clock on a sun-splashed April Sunday in Georgia, David Duval walked across the narrow stone bridge named in honor of Gene Sarazen that leads to the 15th green at the Augusta National Golf Club. Everywhere Duval looked, he saw people. Augusta's 15th is one of golf's great theaters. There is water in front of the narrow green and behind it too. Huge loblolly pine trees, one of Augusta's signatures, line the right side of the hole, and there is a grandstand to the left of the green between the putting surface and the 16th tee. When the players cross the Sarazen Bridge, they are only a few feet from the grandstand, walking in the afternoon shadow that it casts. Each player receives a resounding ovation as he passes, the shouts and cheers growing a little louder as the day wears on.

Duval's golf ball was sitting on the front of the green, about 18 feet from the flagstick. He had hit his second shot there, an almost perfect three-iron, and now he would have a putt for an eagle three. His playing partner, Jim Furyk, had hit his second shot over the green into the water, and he walked briskly ahead of Duval to see what he had to deal with in order to try and save par.

Just as Duval crossed from the stone bridge back onto green grass, he heard a murmur come from the stands and instinctively looked up at the scoreboard that sits to the right of the green. The name at the top of the board was Fred Couples, because he had been the leader at the end of the third round. Through twelve holes, Couples had been eight under par for the tournament, the same number Duval had reached when he had birdied the par-five 13th hole a few minutes earlier. Being tied for the lead on Sunday at the Masters is no small thing, but Duval had stayed very calm after pulling even with Couples. After all, Couples still had both of Augusta's back-nine par-fives—13 and 15—left to play, and, since both are easily reachable in two, Duval figured Couples still had the advantage.

But now, reacting to the crowd's murmur, Duval glanced up at the board and saw what everyone else had just seen. Next to Couples's name in the slot for the 13th hole, the scorekeeper had slid a large red numeral 6. Duval stared at it for a moment because he wasn't quite sure if it meant what he thought it meant. Maybe, he thought, they'll realize it's a mistake in another second and take it down. But no one was making any such move. Somehow, Couples had made a double-bogey seven at the 13th hole, meaning he had dropped from eight under for the tournament to six under.

Duval wears wraparound sunglasses on the golf course to protect his contact lenses from wind and dust. But the dark glasses do more than that. They allow Duval an extra measure of privacy from prying eyes and cameras. Now, those eyes and cameras could not see how wide his eyes had gotten. He took a deep breath and leaned on his putter, trying to look as casual as possible. But his heart was pounding so hard he was certain everyone around the green could hear it thumping. He was leading the Masters by two shots and staring at a very makable eagle putt. For one brief moment, Duval allowed the kind of thought he tries to avoid at all costs to infect his brain. If I make this putt, I'm going to win the Masters, he thought.

Furyk had played his fourth shot onto the green. It was Duval's turn to putt.

One of the most popular and pointless mind games that golfers like to play is called It's Just Another Tournament. They play this game four times a year at the four events that clearly are not just another tournament: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA. Every golfer knows that if he wants a legacy that goes beyond having made a good living, he must win one of the game's four majors.

Because winning a major is so difficult, because the pressures that are brought to bear late on a Sunday afternoon can be mentally and emotionally crippling, golfers constantly tell themselves and anyone who is willing to listen that it really isn't that big a deal.

"You know, a lot of great golfers have never won a major," Greg Norman, who has won two but lost many others, once insisted. When a listener asked Norman to list all those great players who had never won a major, Norman paused. Then he smiled and said, "Okay, a lot of good players have never won a major."

Exactly. Although winning a major championship does not guarantee greatness, not winning one guarantees that you will never be considered great. Deep in his heart, every golfer knows this. He knows there will always be a blank page on his golfing résumé if he doesn't win a major.

Mark O'Meara knew all this. He knew that he would always be asked about not winning a major title until and unless he won one. Publicly, O'Meara repeated the mantra that players in his position repeat if only to keep themselves sane: "If I never win a major, I'll still have had a very good career," he said over and over when the question came up. Then he would point out that he had won the U.S. Amateur title in 1979 and many people considered that a major. "I've never won a professional major," he would say.

Euphemisms aside, O'Meara knew that if he hadn't won fourteen times on the PGA Tour and hadn't been one of the game's more consistent players for fifteen years, he would never have had to answer the dreaded "major" question. But he had been asked the question repeatedly, enough times that he had half-jokingly said earlier in the week that he would like to win the Masters if only so he would never have to answer the question again.

O'Meara was far too pleasant a man to snap at anyone for asking the question, but he was sensitive about it. A year earlier, when Jaime Diaz of Sports Illustrated had written a piece headlined "King of the B's," about O'Meara, he had been hurt and insulted. He believed his record was better than that of a 'B' player—even the best 'B' player. But deep down he knew the point Diaz was making. You could win at Pebble Beach forever—O'Meara had won there five times—and it wouldn't be good enough until you won on one of golf's four special weekends.

Now, as Duval lined up his putt at 15, O'Meara and Couples were walking off the 14th tee. Duval led them both by two shots, but their mindsets at that moment were very different. Couples had believed all week that he was going to win the tournament. He had won in 1992, and everything seemed to be aligned for him to win it again in 1998. He had led or been tied for the lead ever since Thursday afternoon, when he had started birdie-birdie-birdie. But now, in the wake of the double bogey that had caused all the murmuring at 15, Couples was trying to regroup emotionally.

O'Meara had no such traumas to deal with. He had trailed Couples almost all day and was two strokes behind him standing on the 13th tee. Fifteen minutes later, he and Couples had walked off the green dead even. He knew Duval was two shots and two holes ahead, but there was plenty of time to catch him. At a moment when all sorts of crazy thoughts could have been raging inside his head, O'Meara felt relaxed. One more time he told himself what he had been saying all day long: "When you've been in position to win on tour, you've done a good job closing the deal. Today should be no different."

Of course it was different, as Duval's pounding heart could attest. He had spent the whole day playing the "it's just another tournament" game, but it wasn't working now. It hadn't been working since the 10th hole, when he had chipped in to get within two shots of the lead and had realized that another of golf's oft-repeated clichés was now very much in play: "The Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday." It was Sunday, he was on the back nine, and the tournament was very much under way.

Duval has always been a deliberate player. He took even more time than usual looking at his eagle putt, knowing what making it would mean. Finally, he stood over the ball, took the putter back, and watched the ball roll right at the hole. "Halfway there," he said, "I thought I'd made it." So did everyone else. The crowd began to stand in anticipation of the ball dropping. "Three feet out, I was sure I'd made it," Duval said.

But nothing is certain on the greens at Augusta until the ball actually disappears into the hole. This time, at the last instant, the ball took a tiny turn left, just enough to leave it an inch from the left edge of the cup. Duval stared in disbelief for a couple of seconds as the crowd oohed in shared dismay. Again, the sunglasses hid his emotions. He walked up and tapped in for the birdie.

Furyk had made a bogey six after his trip to the water and was now at five under. Duval was nine under. He had a three-stroke lead on Couples and O'Meara as he walked to the 16th tee. "That's what I kept telling myself," he said later. "I still had a three-shot lead. I knew Fred and Mark still had 15 to play, so you had to figure they would at least get to seven [under] there. But I was thinking if I made three pars, the absolute worst-case scenario was a playoff."

Which is why he played his six-iron shot conservatively at the par-three 16th to the right side of the green, away from the water. If he had been tied for the lead or a shot behind, he would have aimed at the flag, located, as it always was on Sunday, on the left side of the green where the water could come into play. Leading by three, Duval wasn't about to mess with the water. His shot landed safe and dry on the right side, but instead of funneling toward the hole, as shots often do on that green, it came to a halt, 40 feet to the right of the flag. "That meant, no matter what I did with my first putt, I was going to have an eight-to-ten-foot putt for par," Duval said. It was an eight-footer, and it stopped rolling inches shy of the cup. Bogey. The lead was two.

Duval parred 17 and parred 18, missing a 20-foot putt for birdie at 18 that started out left and stayed left, ending up two feet below the hole. When he walked off the green, Couples and O'Meara were playing the 17th hole. Couples had bounced back from the disaster at 13 to eagle the 15th, meaning that he and Duval were now tied. O'Meara had birdied 15 and just missed his birdie putt at 16. He was one shot back of the two leaders.

Duval carefully went through his scorecard in the scorer's tent, signed his card, and was greeted coming out of the tent by several members of Augusta National. Since a playoff was a very real possibility, they wanted to sequester him someplace where he could have privacy, away from the media, away from the crowds. The spot offered was the cabin named for tournament and club cofounder Bobby Jones that sits to the left of the 10th tee. Duval and his girlfriend, Julie McArthur, along with his caddy, Mitch Knox, and his agent, Charlie Moore, were shepherded to the Jones Cabin. There Jackson Stephens, the chairman of the club, was waiting. He congratulated Duval on his play and offered him a seat in front of the television set.

Couples and O'Meara were on the 18th fairway. Couples was in the fairway bunker on the left side. Once, in 1988, Sandy Lyle had made birdie from that bunker to win the Masters. But that had been a near miracle. Realistically, Couples would have to work to make par. O'Meara was safely in the fairway, but, since he was one shot back, Duval quickly figured that the worst he could do was play off, and since a bogey for Couples wasn't out of the question, he might win the tournament without hitting another shot.

Couples played his shot from the bunker, and as soon as he hit it, Duval knew his chances of winning had improved considerably. Couples didn't even bother to watch the ball come down, turning from it in disgust almost as soon as it left his club. His assessment was right. The ball flew into the front right bunker up by the green. Couples would have to get up and down to tie.

The camera shifted to O'Meara, perfectly positioned in the fairway in almost the same position Duval had occupied 20 minutes earlier. As O'Meara stood over his ball, CBS put a font on the screen that said, "O'Meara, –8." Duval gagged. "Isn't he minus seven?" he asked.

"He birdied seventeen," Jack Stephens said.

Duval hadn't known that. He had assumed that both players had parred 17. Since he had narrowly missed a birdie from the spot where O'Meara now stood, Duval knew that O'Meara could birdie from there and the tournament would be over. O'Meara's second shot flew onto the green and stopped in almost the exact same place from which Duval had putted 20 minutes earlier. Duval breathed a small sigh of relief. At least O'Meara hadn't knocked the flag down. The putt would be 20 feet with a wicked right-to-left break. Certainly makable for a great putter like O'Meara, but not easy by any means.

O'Meara and Couples walked to the green, the applause raining down on them. This wasn't the kind of victory walk Tiger Woods had experienced a year earlier with a 12-shot lead, but the applause was warm and generous for two talented and popular players. Couples, now hoping for a playoff, played a fine bunker shot to about six feet. A three-way playoff seemed possible, even likely.

Perhaps the only person not thinking in those terms was O'Meara. "As I was lining the putt up, it occurred to me that if I wanted to win the Masters, I was going to have to make a putt someplace," he said. "I thought to myself, why not right now? Why go back down the 10th? Why not end this here?"

Unbeknownst to O'Meara, many in the crowd were already scrambling down the 10th fairway, trying to get into position for the playoff they were sure would begin there in a few minutes. It was just after 7 P.M. and the sun was slowly beginning to retreat into the Georgia pines, the warm day beginning to cool as dusk slowly moved in.

O'Meara and his caddy, Jerry Higginbotham, looked the putt over carefully. Both agreed it would probably break about "one or one and a half cups left," O'Meara said later. In other words, the break was about the width of the cup—4¼ inches—he was aiming for and then about half that much again. But as he went to get over the putt, something in O'Meara's gut told him the putt would break just a little more than that. His experience on the greens at Augusta, built up over fourteen years of playing the golf course, told him that there is always a little more break in a putt than you think you see. And he knew, just knew that the final Sunday hole location at Augusta would be in a tricky spot.

Jack Stephens knew too. He had played the golf course a lot more than O'Meara and had putted to that hole location often. As O'Meara got up over the putt, he looked at Duval and said, "Don't worry about a thing, David. Nobody makes this putt."

Duval knew he had missed it. So had Furyk, who had been on almost the same line, just a couple of feet farther away. He took a deep breath.

So did O'Meara, who had long ago put aside any notion that this was just another tournament. He knew now that this moment, right here, right now, was what he had played golf for all his life. All the money, all the other victories, the huge house he had built for his family in Florida, were distant memories. This was a putt for history, the putt of his life.

"As soon as it left the club, I knew I had hit a good putt," he said. "I could see it tracking toward the hole, but I could also see it was starting to die to the left."

If he had believed his eyes rather than his gut, the putt would have followed the same path that Duval's and Furyk's had. But because he had played it just a little more to the right, the putt began to break an instant later than the others had. Behind the hole, many of the spectators began standing as the ball began to drive. O'Meara stood frozen, not wanting to think it might be in, not wanting to deal with the disappointment of thinking for a moment that he had won the Masters and then having to walk to the 10th tee for a playoff.

Just before the ball got to the cup, it began to veer left. "Another inch and it's wide," O'Meara said.

But that inch wasn't there. The ball caught the left side of the cup and disappeared. O'Meara's arms were in the air, a wave of disbelief and relief pouring over him. He never smiled. His game face was so set that the smile didn't come until later. Higginbotham was pounding him on the back and Couples was congratulating him. O'Meara was more stunned than thrilled. He had never once led the tournament in four days. Until now. On his final putt, on the final hole. The only time when it mattered.

In the Jones Cabin, there was a brief silence when the putt disappeared. Jack Stephens, having finally seen someone make that putt, stood up and shook hands with Duval. "Well, David, great playing," he said. "We'll look forward to seeing you again next year."

Duval stood there, his eyes blank. He felt as if someone had kicked him very hard in the stomach. He had finished second on tour seven different times. Each time it had been disappointing. But not like this. Two months later, retelling the story, he leaned forward and took a deep breath. "I swear to God," he said, "just thinking about it again makes my stomach hurt all over."

Duval now knew the difference between all other golf tournaments and the four majors. The pain. "Never, ever, have I felt like that at the end of a golf tournament," he said. "It was as if every bit of adrenaline and energy I had ever had just went right out of me. Right then I understood what the majors are all about. Really and truly understood for the first time."

Several hours later, Mark O'Meara also understood. He had gone through all the rituals of victory after making his putt: the green jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin; the public ceremony on the putting green; talking to the print media, then the TVs. He had sat at the victory dinner in the clubhouse that night, accepting congratulations all around, proudly wearing the green jacket. As dessert was being served, O'Meara sat back in his chair and a wave of exhaustion came over him.

Suddenly, something occurred to him. He had no idea how much money he had made for winning the tournament. "First time in my life," he said. "I won the golf tournament and six hours later, I didn't have a clue how much the winner's check was for."

The check was for $576,000. But if it had been for $576 or $5.76, O'Meara wouldn't have cared. Most of the time, professional golfers play for money. It is how they are measured at the end of each year. But four times a year, the money becomes completely irrelevant. They are playing for history.


Before the Masters Was the Masters

Although it may seem that the four major championships have been the four major championships forever, that isn't even close to being the case. In fact, there is considerable disagreement on exactly when the notion of golf's current Grand Slam came into being. As recently as 1953, when Ben Hogan became the first and only man to win the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the British Open in the same year, he didn't even play in the PGA. What's more, he never returned to Great Britain to defend the title he had won at Carnoustie or anytime thereafter.

Imagine a golfer in today's world somehow pulling off the miracle of winning the first three majors in a year and then passing up the PGA. It just wouldn't happen. Of course, Hogan's decision was based at least in part on the difficulty of rushing back from Great Britain and then going through seven days of match play at a time when he still hadn't completely recovered from the 1949 automobile accident that almost killed him. But, even so, if a player today had to crawl around the course for a chance at sweeping the four majors he would do just that.

The first major championship was, of course, the Open Championship staged in 1860 at Prestwick, Scotland. The first Open wasn't really an open, since it was open only to professionals. Willie Park won the 36-hole event, shooting a 174 to beat Old Tom Morris by two shots. A year later, the Open did become open, allowing amateurs to compete, and the results were similar: Old Tom Morris was the winner, Park the runner-up. In fact, the two men dominated the event, Morris winning it four times, Park three, during the first eight years the championship was conducted. Their string was broken only in 1865, when Andrew Straith beat Park by two shots to win the title. Park and Morris then won the next two Opens before Young Tom Morris—son of Old Tom—won the next four tournaments.

A year later, in 1872, the tournament was moved away from tiny Prestwick for the first time, to the Old Course at St. Andrews. For the next twenty years it was rotated among three courses—Prestwick, St. Andrews, and Musselburgh. In 1892, Muirfield was added to the rotation. That was also the first year that the championship was extended to 72 holes, Harold H. Hilton winning with a score of 305. Two years later, the Open was played outside Scotland for the first time, at Royal St. George's, in the south of England.

A year later, shortly before the Open was played for the thirty-fifth time (there hadn't been a tournament in 1870 because Young Tom Morris had retired the championship belt by winning it three straight times and no one had yet come up with something else to play for), the U.S. Golf Association decided to hold a national championship of its own. It was held at Newport Country Club, 36 holes played on the same 9-hole course in one day. The winner was Horace Rawlins, who shot 173. In 1898, for the fourth U.S. Open, the USGA matched its British counterpart by extending the event to 72 holes. But it was only in 1900, when the great Harry Vardon ventured across the Atlantic to win the championship, that the Open played in the U.S. began to approach the status of the Open played in Great Britain.

To this day golf people argue about which Open carries more prestige. In Europe, there is little doubt that most golfers and golf fans consider winning the British Open the number one achievement in golf, with the Masters second and the U.S. Open third. In the United States, the number one spot is a split decision between the Masters and the U.S. Open, with the British Open third. Only the PGA finishes the same in every poll in every corner of the globe—fourth—a fact that rankles those who run it.

The PGA of America held its first championship in 1916, a match play event won by James M. Barnes. World War I caused a two-year gap before Barnes successfully defended his title in 1919. In the 1920s, the PGA gained cachet because of the men who won it: Walter Hagen in 1921, Gene Sarazen the next two years, and then Hagen the next four. In 1923, Sarazen and Hagen staged one of the great matches of all time, Sarazen winning the 36-hole final on the second hole of sudden death.

Seventy-one years later, when Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens introduced Sarazen on opening day of the 1994 Masters as one of the honorary starters, he noted that Sarazen had won the second Masters in 1935, that he had won the British Open in 1932, and that he had won the U.S. Open in both 1922 and 1932. "Hey Jack," the ninety-two-year-old Sarazen said, "you forgot the PGA. I won that twice, you know."

Such seems to be the fate of the PGA.

In fact, in 1930 when Bob Jones won his historic Grand Slam, the four events that made up the Slam were the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs. In those days it wasn't automatic that a top golfer turned professional, because it wasn't a terribly lucrative profession. Almost all pros held club jobs in addition to playing in tournaments and, to a cultured man like Jones, who held a law degree, the notion of playing golf to make a living was absurd. As late as the 1950s very good players passed up the chance to turn pro because it was such an uncertain way to make a living. Only the very top players made big money. It wasn't until Arnold Palmer came along and brought both corporate America and TV to the game that the tour started to become the place to be for almost anyone who showed an ounce of ability.

A little more than a year after winning his Slam, Jones and his friend Clifford Roberts purchased a piece of property in Augusta, Georgia, called Fruitlands Nursery. On July 15, 1931, the lead story in the Augusta Chronicle carried the headline "Bobby Jones to Build His Ideal Golf Course on Berckman's Place." (The Berckman family had owned the nursery.) The subheadline read: "National Club Will Be Headed by Great Golfer." The somewhat hyperbolic news story began this way: "Bobby Jones, King of the links for probably all time, whose superiority in golf has been displayed on the finest golf courses in the entire world, has come to Augusta to build his ideal golf course."

Jones's prestige and Roberts's business acumen got the golf course built and the club started although it was in the midst of the depression. Most of the charter members—fifty-nine men who paid $350 each to join—were from New York, men who did business with Roberts. The club opened in January 1933, and Jones and Roberts began planning an invitational golf tournament right from the start. The first Masters was played in 1934, with Horton Smith beating Craig Wood by a shot to win. It was known then as the Augusta National Invitational because Jones thought the term "Masters," which Roberts preferred, pretentious. By 1938 Jones gave up that battle, since most people—players included—were using the Roberts terminology, and the tournament has been known as the Masters for the last sixty years.

Since then a number of books have been written about the history of the club and the golf tournament, the best and most recent being Curt Sampson's The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia, which was published in 1998. Sampson explains in detail the difficult beginnings the club had, the trouble it often had in paying bills, and, perhaps most amazing, the lack of interest in the tournament locally until well after World War II. Not only was it easy to buy a ticket to the Masters in the early days, Roberts and company did everything but plead with people to take them.

That did not mean the tournament did not have an impact on the golf world. From the moment Gene Sarazen hit his "shot heard round the world," the four-wood second shot he holed for a double eagle at the 15th hole during the final round in 1935, the Masters and Augusta National became an important part of the golf year. The Sarazen Bridge is named in Sarazen's honor as a tribute to that famous shot. What many people don't remember is that the double eagle didn't win the tournament for Sarazen but put him into a tie with Craig Wood, who was already in the clubhouse. The next day Sarazen won a 36-hole playoff by five shots. (Wood did finally win the tournament in 1941.)


On Sale
May 27, 2014
Page Count
496 pages

John Feinstein

About the Author

John Feinstein is the author of forty-five books, including two #1 New York Times bestsellers, A Season on the Brink, and A Good Walk Spoiled. His mystery novel, Last Shot, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category. He is a member of six Halls of Fame and is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. Additionally, he does color commentary for VCU basketball, George Mason basketball, and Longwood basketball. He is also does commentary for the Navy radio network and is a regular on The Sports Junkies in his hometown of Washington, DC.

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