Winning three of the four major championships in men’s professional golf is no easy feat. Only 18 golfers have ever done it,1 and of those, only five — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen — have gone on to win the fourth and complete the career grand slam.2
One of the 13 golfers stuck on three majors (poor guy, I know) is Jordan Spieth, who joined the club with his win at the British Open in July. And luckily for Spieth, the last major he needs to check off is the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at the Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. If Spieth wins, he’ll become the group’s sixth member — and the youngest at the time of his accession. Spieth is OK at golf, gang.
But although the PGA is often regarded as the game’s weakest major, even the greatest golfers can get hung up trying to add it to their collection. Of the seven modern-era golfers who weren’t able to secure that elusive fourth major (not counting Spieth, who still has much of his career in front of him), two counted the PGA Championship as their white whale. One of those golfers was some guy named Arnold Palmer, and the other was Tom Watson — owners of 15 total majors between them. But for all their many accomplishments, the duo were never able to capture the Wanamaker Trophy.
|PLAYER||MISSING MAJOR||CUTS MADE*||SUCCESS?|
|Jack Nicklaus||British Open||3||✓|
|Raymond Floyd||British Open||7|
|Tiger Woods||British Open||1||✓|
|Arnold Palmer||PGA Championship||21|
|Tom Watson||PGA Championship||17|
|Lee Trevino||The Masters||13|
|Rory McIlroy||The Masters||3|
|Gary Player||U.S. Open||3||✓|
|Phil Mickelson||U.S. Open||2|
|Sam Snead||U.S. Open||19|
When modern-era golfers have needed either the U.S. or British Open to cap off the slam, they’ve had at least some success — three wins against 35 cuts made after winning his first three majors.3 And the two players who’ve needed only the Masters as their coup de grace, Lee Trevino and Rory McIlroy, are only oh-for-16 in terms of wins versus cuts made. But between Palmer and Watson, slam-seekers are winless in their 38 cuts at the PGA, a record of futility Spieth will try to chip away at.
Watson got close at the PGA before the career grand slam was on the line — he finished in a tie for second at Oakmont Country Club in 1978, though he hadn’t yet won the U.S. Open at that stage of his career. He’d get his first chance at the career slam in the summer of 1982 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma — and he put forth a solid effort, finishing in a tie for ninth on the leaderboard. But in his subsequent 23 starts at the PGA Championship, Watson would never get closer than fifth.
Palmer, meanwhile, got his first shot at career-slam glory at the 1964 PGA Championship in Columbus, Ohio. He hit it well all week but ended up three strokes back of winner Bobby Nichols, in a tie for second with Nicklaus. It was a tough pill to swallow for sure, but Palmer would get many more whacks at his slam; Nichols would never win another major.
But the PGA disappointments kept piling up. At the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio, Texas, Palmer entered Sunday two strokes back of leader Frank Beard and saw an opening when Beard blew up in the final round. But 48-year-old (!) Julius Boros played a little better, edging Palmer by a single stroke with a final-round 69.
Palmer’s window was closing, but ’68 wouldn’t be his last near-miss. That would come at the 1970 PGA Championship — also played at Southern Hills — where he, for the third time in seven seasons, finished in a tie for second. That meant one of the greatest golfers ever came within a few shots of reaching the sport’s zenith on three separate occasions, only to fall short because of a bad chip here or a poor read there.
Now Jordan Spieth — a 24 year-old who celebrated his first birthday two weeks before Palmer was cut from the final PGA Championship in which he appeared — has a chance to do what Palmer couldn’t.
Spieth’s path won’t be easy, though — he’ll have to contend with McIlroy, a two-time PGA Championship winner who holds the course record at Quail Hollow4 and who — oh, by the way — is also just one major shy of the career grand slam. (He only needs to check off a Masters victory.) Spieth may be golf’s wunderkind du jour, but it wasn’t long ago that McIlroy was the player everyone believed might challenge Jack and Tiger for GOAT status. And despite Spieth’s bid to make history this weekend, McIlroy is the tournament favorite.
So it should be a fun duel: Spieth and McIlroy are two of the best golfers in the world and have been for a while. For the 2017 PGA season, Spieth ranks first in strokes gained approaching the green, fourth in total strokes gained on average, seventh in strokes gained from tee to green, 18th in strokes gained around the green, and 47th in strokes gained from putting. (Strokes gained is a statistic that measures how golfers pick up and lose strokes compared to the rest of the field. Spieth leading the PGA tour in strokes gained approaching the green means that, because his approach shots are so good, he is improving his score at a better clip than anyone else in the field. It also confirms what everyone is saying: Spieth is an excellent iron player.)
What about McIlroy? He’s battled injury for much of the season, but when he has played, he’s been good. McIlroy hasn’t made enough starts in 2017 for his stats to qualify for the PGA leaderboards, but let’s have a look at them anyway. If he were ranked against the rest of the tour, McIlroy would be first in strokes gained from tee to green and in strokes gained off the tee. And McIlroy’s total strokes gained average would rank third on the tour. His play around and on the green hasn’t been great — he would be tied for 79th in strokes gained around the green and rank 96th in strokes gained from putting, if qualified — but then again, McIlroy’s strength has never been his putter. He’s a tee-to-green kind of player, and that part of his game is firing on all cylinders entering the PGA Championship. The field — and especially Spieth — should be very afraid.
Whatever the outcome this Sunday, golf fans should be feeling pretty lucky right now — it’s possible Spieth and McIlroy could both achieve career grand slams by trading wins in the next two majors. But there are no guarantees in golf, especially when it comes to checking off the career slam at the PGA — just ask Palmer and Watson.