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Friday, August 30, 2013

Ranking the Majors

Today's post is sort of a continuance of yesterday's post about the POY race. It occurred to me that many of you might think I was dissing the Masters because I said it had the weakest field of any of the majors -- which I didn't mean at all. I figured an explanatory post was in order.

Here's my question: Have you ever wondered why we have four majors in the first place? I don't mean why we have four instead of three or five. Rather, I mean why we have more than one major tournament each year?

The reason for having a number of majors each year is that each one tests players in a different way. That's why it's been so rare for a player to win all the majors in a row -- regardless of how many majors were played that year -- and why even the Career Slam is so rare. Only five pros have Career Slams -- Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus, and Woods. (The amateur slam Jones has doesn't directly compare, but it's a Career Slam nonetheless.) It takes a special golfer to excel at ALL the skills necessary to win all the majors.

Let's take a quick look at each of the majors. I think you'll find it informative.

THE MASTERS: The Masters is a test of shotmaking skill and the course is set up for that. (And they can do that in part because it's the only major played on the same course each year.) There are plenty of hazards but virtually no rough; can you shape the shots and still get them to stop in the proper spots? As a result, the Masters committee sets its qualifications to get the best shotmakers -- which, in an age of bomb and gouge, means you don't necessarily get the best players at the moment. Former winners, for example, have proven they have the necessary skills but may not be particularly competitive at the event. Much has been made of the committee's refusal to give invitations to winners of alternate PGA Tour events; they may be winners but they aren't playing against the best ballstrikers, who presumably are playing in the top events.

Don't get me wrong -- the players who make it to the weekend are typically the best players in the OWGR. But because the field is so strictly limited -- usually between 90 and 100 players -- and so many of those players are amateurs and past winners who don't have a huge chance of winning, the best players don't have all that much trouble getting to the weekend. That's why I said this field is the weakest of the majors. I didn't say the winner wasn't worthy of a major title!

THE US OPEN: By contrast, the US Open is a test of fundamentals. Perhaps this came about because it's the second oldest major, started back when "golf pro" didn't mean what it does today. (Did they even have pros back then?) Because any player can become a fundamentally sound player and because it has a full field, the tournament can have open qualifying for amateurs and still get a strong field.

Unlike the Masters, where a low shot from pine straw in the trees or a massively hooked wedge from far off the fairway can become the winner's defining shot, the most memorable shot at a US Open is usually the one that didn't come off. That's what happens when you leave 6-inch rough everywhere! The winner here is the man who hits fairways, hits greens, and makes putts -- not the swashbuckler who hits the all-or-nothing shot.  That's why it's rare to find a player with only two different majors who has both a Masters and a US Open; the skills are entirely different.

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP: The Open Championship is the oldest major and also the only one to develop entirely in "the Old World," so it has a distinct flavor of its own. For lack of a better description, I'll call it a test of recovery fundamentals. Since it's played on links land, the techniques demanded by links golf can change wildly from day to day. And links courses are designed for this very purpose -- a links course is "playable" in weather that would cause suspension in every other major! Because of this, an Open win also requires more mental toughness and flexibility than just about any other major; after all, in most majors you at least have some idea what conditions you're going to face. At an Open, they might change three times before you finish!

THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: Although many fans think of the PGA as the least important of the majors, that's because they don't realize how much history this event has. The PGA was first contested in 1916 and was a match play event before changing to stroke play in 1958. It's the only major that amateurs can't participate in, so the field is always tougher. The PGA's field is almost as tough as the TPC's, which is generally regarded by the players as the toughest field all year. It's not unusual to see the top 100 from the OWGR in the PGA field, despite the invited club pros; as a full-field event, the club pros don't really weaken the field. (And bear in mind that some of these club pros also play some regular events during the year.) So the PGA typically has the strongest field of any major.

Although this year's event at Oak Hill was set up more like a US Open, in general the PGA is a test of ability to score under pressure. The PGA's approach to course setup is simply "let 'em play." Both shotmakers and bomb-and-gougers can score well on the typical PGA course, so PGA scores are typically the lowest of any major. More so than in any other major, there's a constant pressure to take it deep -- originally in the crucible of match play, now because the course is specifically set up to encourage players to go for every shot.

Personally, I wish the PGA was still match play because it would really round out the majors. It's interesting to note that all of our "Career Slammers" also boast match play wins. Sarazen and Hogan each won the PGA when it was match play (Hogan won twice and Sarazen three times), Player and Nicklaus both won the Volvo World Match Play (then called the Picadilly World Match Play -- Player won it 5 times!), and Woods has three WGC-Accenture titles. And of course the US and British Amateurs Jones won both have match play finals.

As I see it, those are the differences between the majors. But the players themselves attach different values to each major for reasons that don't have much to do with what I've said. Although you'd think all Europeans would see the Open Championship as the most desirable to win, many if not most current Euro players would name the Masters because Seve was the first Euro to win it. (I suspect there's a bit of Ryder Cup rivalry in that as well.) In a similar vein, sons of teaching pros often place more value on the PGA.

I think you see that in this year's POY debate. Adam seems to have more support than Phil because Adam won THE MASTERS (yes, displayed in all caps for emphasis) as opposed to the Open Championship. Is this because no Aussie had ever won the Masters while the Open seems to be an equal opportunity major? Yeah, I think so. And I pointed out the weaker field in order to try and balance the debate.

My point wasn't that a Masters is worth more or less than an Open; rather, it was that one major is worth the same as any other major. Despite the personal values we may assign to any specific major, one isn't "better" than another -- BUT when we start talking about the value of a major versus any other event, things like field strength and personal opinion have to be identified and quantified to have a decent debate.

I stand by my assessment that NO major is worth the same as a TPC, 2 WGCs, and 2 prestige events even if Tiger says he'd trade all five for one major. That would be like paying $250k for a Kia Soul just because you want one so bad. I understand the sentiment... but only a fool would actually make the deal. We shouldn't determine the POY by such foolishness either.

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