By John Cockayne:
Another season of golf’s Majors is just over the horizon and it will open with the Masters Tournament in April.
The Master’s slot on the calendar has not changed, but this season’s Majors’ schedule looks very different in that for the first time since 1949 (when the event was still a match-play format – won by Sam Snead), The United States PGA Championship will be held in May.
For many years The PGA was the final event on the roster and played in August, but this position will now be taken on by the Open Championship which remains in its traditional July slot.
To add to the schedule’s changed look the Open, golf’s oldest Major, is making a long overdue return to Ireland, which will mean that a venue off the United Kingdom’s mainland will be the host for the Championship for the first time in 67 years.
Who are the defending champions?
To start off the schedule, the defending champion of the season’s opening event will be Patrick Reed (USA) whose win, at the 2018 Masters tournament, was his first Major.
Brooks Koepka (USA) has two titles to defend in the year having annexed his first PGA title in 2018 and he is also a two time defending champion at the US Open.
No player, in the modern era, has ever won three US Opens in a row. The only winner of three in a row to date, was Willie Anderson who won the championship between 1903 and 1905, so Koepka is poised on the threshold of making his own very special entry into golf’s history books.
The Open Championship title will be defended by another first time Major winner in Francesco Molinari. His win at Carnoustie in Scotland was his first in a Major and also marked the first time an Italian had held up the Claret Jug, or won any of golf’s Grand Slam events.
Who are the contenders?
Phil Mickelson has shown a welcome return to form and the winner’s circle having added two more tour titles to his burgeoning record (44 to date) in the past 18 months, after a lean spell which last saw him win in 2013.
Could this be the year that he breaks finally his US Open hoodoo?
Six times a runner up and where a win in his own National Championship would have made him only the 6th player (after Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods) in history to complete a career grand slam by winning all four of the golf Majors.
Of the World’s top 10 players, the Englishman Justin Rose ranked World # 2 (at the time of writing this article) has been remarkably consistent.
The American Brooks Koepka had the best run of all the contenders in the Majors during 2018.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy seemed to floating in and out of form for most of 2018 by showing brilliance in patches before throwing in a mediocre round – fatal in today’s furnace like atmosphere at most professional tournaments.
However his form in 2019 has been stellar, as indicated by a string of top 5 finishes, culminating in his win at The Players Championship.
Bryson De Chambreau (USA), Jon Rahm (Spain) and Xander Schauffele (USA) are relatively new to the top echelons of the professional tournament ranks and all have yet to notch their maiden victory at a Major.
Rickie Fowler however is of a slightly older vintage and keeps ‘knocking on the door’ and, as a regular feature in the top 20 rankings, would not want to hold on to the mantle of ‘best player never to have won a Major’ for too long!
Looking out of the top 10 – both Jason Day from Australia and Jordan Spieth (USA) have been ‘quiet’ for some time at the Majors, although Spieth, in defense of his Open Championship title at Carnoustie, flirted with the top of the leader board for most of the 2nd and 3rd rounds before falling away on the last day to finish 4 shots behind the winner.
Tony Finau from the US had a very solid set of performances at the Majors in 2018 where he made the final day at all 4 Championships and posted 3 top 10 finishes with a high of 5th at the US Open. It is said that you have to learn how to win a Major so if this is true, then his performances in 2018 did much for this learning curve.
To be honest the standards on all of the World’s top professional tours are now so high that anyone, from any Tour can win anywhere on a given week.
With only one win out of four in 2018’s Championships players from the rest of the World and especially those from the European Tour will be looking for a win percentage in 2019.
If we look outside of the top 20 for players with the game, attitude, pedigree and ‘grit’ (another characteristic reckoned to be needed to lift a Major) then a few longer shots would be: Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, England’s Ian Poulter and the young guns of Pepperell, Wallace and Hatton, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Australia’s Adam Scott.
The US veterans Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk might be good longshot bets (Furyk finishing a close second to McIlroy at The Players’ Championship) as both have the game and the temperament to cope with being in contention at a Major.
Of this group only Poulter and Kuchar have yet to win a Major Championship, with Kuchar coming closest to date with his runner up spot at the Open in 2017.
The Players Championship (now often referred to as the ‘5th Major’, although the old Western Open carried this dubious moniker for many years) new slot might be a useful form guide for the Majors as is it played on the kind of golf course that will test every department of a player’s game.
On this date in the tournament calendar, The Players Championship could become a kind of MOT test (the annual Ministry of Transport vehicle test in the UK) for the top player’s swings and give punters some indication of who it might be worth having a flutter on as the business end of the season gets into full swing!
Of course we also must not forget that that Tiger is back!
The ‘Tiger factor’ has been missing for years for reasons that have been well chronicled. However his remarkable return in 2018, where he contended at both the Open and the PGA, was sealed in emphatic style with his victory at The Tour Championship and was the final about as good a story of a sporting comeback as you will ever witness.
What do we know about the host courses for this season’s Majors?
Naturally the Masters Tournament is never played anywhere but at the iconic Augusta National which, amongst a host of other distinguishing features for this event, makes it unique amongst the golf Majors.
Augusta National is continually being improved and ‘tweaked’ to keep it ‘up to standard’ as the modern game evolves, but always with the intention to stay as close to the original design philosophy as possible.
There were strong rumours that the 13th was to be lengthened, but this has not happened. However course has been lengthened again by another 40 yards being added by moving the 5th tee back. This hole, an uphill dogleg, plays consistently as one of the most difficult holes, but the changes were in part prompted by the need to relieve congestion in this area as the 4th green was very adjacent to the original teeing area on the 5th.
Of the other three Majors, The Open Championship is the one which ‘moves’ the least with only a limited number of courses ‘approved’ to host the championship.
That said the Open will be returning to Royal Portrush which last hosted the Championship in 1951, a gap of 67 years. At that Open it was the Englishman Max Faulkner who emerged at the top of the leader board and became the ‘champion golfer’ for that year.
This is a true links and with this type of course, the weather will play a huge role or perhaps not!….depending on the vagaries of the summer in the United Kingdom.
The 2019 USPGA Championship will be contested over Bethpage State Park’s Black Course. This has proved to be tough course over which to break par over 72 holes, with the best return of a 4 under total by Lucas Glover in winning the US Open over the payout in 2009.
In 2002, when the course also hosted the US Open, in finishing on 277 at 3 under the 72 holes’ par of 280, Tiger Woods was the only player in the field to finish in red numbers.
For some time The PGA has been considered by pundits as the event which hosts the ‘best quality field’ as amongst various qualifying criteria, entry is limited to professional golfers.
This could explain why over the years the championship has had such a high percentage of different and first time winners.
It is also the only Major that has ever been contested other than as a stroke-play event as from its inception until 1957 it was a match-play tournament.
All of these iconic championships can be visited by the golf traveller – all you need to do is to go online / contact DGT to source one of the many wonderful travel packages that take amateur golfers to the Majors every year.
Roll on the 11th of April!
By John Cockayne: Golf Editor – Destination Golf Travel Guide for Southern Africa & The Indian Ocean Islands.