The debate over whether or not the Players Championship should be considered a major is as much a part of golf’s spring tradition as the azaleas blooming at Augusta National and championship dreams coming to die in the murky waters surrounding the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass.
Many fans and analyst are quick to dismiss this debate as nothing more than the PGA Tour attempting to boost their flagship event into a category it is undeserving of.
Yet few realize that if history is anything to go by, it is very likely that the four tournaments we refer to as major championships today will either have some additional company in that category or might not even be considered majors at all sometime in the future.
The tournaments that have been considered golf’s majors have consistently changed and evolved throughout the years, so it would be quite illogical to believe that this trend will not continue as golf advances into the 21st century.
Back in 1860, a small tournament was formed for golf’s working class. Caddies, club professionals, local club and ball makers all gathered for what was the very first Open Championship.
Throughout the first 40 years or so of the Open Championship, this event wasn’t by any means considered to be a major championship amongst the fans, the media or even the players themselves.
The purse at the Open Championship was chump change compared to what players earned in head-to-head and team challenge matches, and the fans and media were far more likely to turn out for a match between Tom Morris Sr. and Willie Park than they were to attend the Open Championship.
Guys like Morris, Park, Tom Morris Jr., Jamie Anderson, Bob Ferguson, and even up to players such as J.H. Taylor and Harry Vardon in the late 1800s, had no idea that they were winning majors championships when they captured their Open Championship titles.
Yet now these men are all credited with major championship titles for their wins during the early days of the Open Championship.
From around 1900–1930, the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur Championship, Open Championship and British Amateur Championship were considered by many to be the four majors.
But professionals were not permitted to take part in the amateur championships, so they considered the PGA Championship and Western Open to be their biggest events, or their “majors.”
One could even make a strong case that the North and South Open was also considered to be a professional major for at least a period of time between 1920 and the early-to-mid-1940s.
This period in golfing history was probably the murkiest with regards to what was considered to be a major championship and what was not.
Bobby Jones would have undoubtedly believed that he was winning majors with his U.S. and British Amateur titles, while Walter Hagen would have believed that his PGA Championship and Western Open titles were majors.
History would eventually remove major championship titles from both men’s resumes as the sport began to evolve into a more professionally driven game.
Today, Jones’ U.S. and British Amateur wins are not considered major titles, while Hagen’s five Western Open wins are also not considered majors.
However, history also handed out a few major championship gifts as the game began to evolve into the 1960s and beyond.
The first Masters, then known as the Augusta National Invitational, was held in 1934 and won by Horton Smith. At the time, this was just a small invitational tournament put on by Jones and Augusta National co-founder, Clifford Roberts.
The event was so minor that Gene Sarazen didn’t event attend the first Masters because he was off somewhere participating in an exhibition match that undoubtedly paid him far more than he could have earned at the Masters.
The Masters began to evolve into a more important tournament throughout the late 1930 and 1940s, but even into the mid-1950s, players that were winning the Masters really had no idea that they were winning a major. They simply thought they were winning a big tournament on a great golf course against a strong field.
It wasn’t until Arnold Palmer won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960 and a Pittsburgh Press sports writer by the name of Bob Drum published an article discussing Palmer’s quest for the “professional grand slam” that the four tournaments we now know as majors begin to gain some solid footing.
Yet today we still credit Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, etc. with major titles for their wins at the Masters, when in reality these men had no idea they were winning “majors” at that time.
The other thing to consider about the evolution of golf’s majors is the format of the events and the tournament participants.
At the time when Hagen won his four PGA Championships, the event was a match-play format and was not attended by the game’s top amateurs such as Jones.
So, essentially, Hagen had to only defeat a small handful of players, none of which were arguably the best player of that generation, in order to win his PGA Championship titles.
And Jones of course didn’t have to face off against the likes of Hagen and Sarazen in his quest for the 1930 Grand Slam of golf either.
If one were to try and truly identify four majors from the early 1900s it would probably be the U.S. Open, Open Championship, Western Open and North and South Open, as these were the four biggest events on the golfing schedule that were attended by all of the game’s top players, professionals and amateurs alike.
The PGA Championship didn’t switch over to a stroke-play event until 1958. So every winner between the events inception in 1916 and the move to stroke play in 1958 had to only beat a small number of golfers in a format not used in any of today’s professional majors.
Heck, Hogan didn’t even attend a PGA Championship between 1949, when he suffered life-threatening injuries in a horrific car accident, and 1959 due to his physical inability to play several 36-hole matches.
So, every player that won the PGA Championship between 1949 and 1959 not only needed to defeat a very small number of players to win the title, but they also didn’t have to face off against one of the top players of that generation.
For the past 150 years there has been a clear trend of major championships changing and evolving.
While it is true that the four tournaments we consider majors today have pretty much been written in stone for the past 54 years, what is to say that the major-championship landscape will not look vastly different 30 years from now?
And if we were to predict an event that may evolve into a major or replace one of the four current majors, what better choice than the Players Championship?
The Players contains by far the strongest field of any professional event in golf today.
TPC Sawgrass has become nothing short of an iconic landmark in the game of golf. There is not a golf fan today that cannot immediately identify TPC Sawgrass’ famed closing stretch of holes.
In its short 40-year history the Players has already produced more than handful of truly historic and memorable moments.
And the game’s top players from virtually every generation over the past 40 years have captured at least one Players Championship title.
One could also certainly argue that the Players Championship has more of an identity right now than several of golf’s current majors.
Now, that is not to suggest that the Players Championship should immediately be considered a major.
But, based on golf’s evolution over the past 150 years, we’d also be quite foolish to simply dismiss the idea of the Players Championship one day evolving into a major.
In fact, if history is anything to go by, it is probably more likely that the Players Championship will be considered a major 20-30 years from now than it remaining just another big event that comes up short of major-championship status.
Human beings have always had an innate resistance to change, yet change manages to constantly occur throughout all walks of life, and golf has been, and will continue to be, no different in that regard.