What does it take to win a Major Championship?

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Leave it to the great Bobby Jones to put a fine point on the different levels of golf. “There is golf, tournament golf and championship golf,” he once said, “and they are not at all the same.”

Leave it to the great golf writer Charles Price to embellish the maestro. “All of them can be likened to walking a tightrope,” Price wrote. “Ordinary golf… is like walking a tightrope when it’s just off the ground. Tournament golf is when they raise the rope to 60 feet. Championship golf is when they take the net away.”

Of course, there is so very little room on the tightrope; the glory can only go to one man. Thus, tumbles are inevitable, and they can be wretchedly painful, especially when the plummet comes from the high wires of Major championships.

Examples of crashes ranging from ordinary to colossal are scattered throughout the game’s history. One doesn’t even need to look past the current decade for two prime examples. In 2011, Rory McIlroy, the prodigiously talented then 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, was in control of the 75th Masters from the outset, and held a four-stroke lead through 54 holes. He still led by a stroke after 63 holes, but the meltdown he suffered on the final nine holes at Augusta National Golf Club was swift and certain and unsettling. An inward 43 resulted in an 80, and McIlroy became an also-ran as South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel tiptoed the tightrope and won the coveted green jacket that goes to the Masters champion.

The following year at the [British] Open, Major expectation weighed Australia’s Adam Scott down in a similar fashion, except Scott waited until the finishing line was in clear sight before crumbling like a chalk cliff in a tsunami. Holding a comfortable lead on the 15th tee, he somehow managed to bogey the last four holes and effectively present the Claret Jug to his more experienced – and, presumably, extremely grateful – Presidents Cup teammate, Ernie Els.

Joyfully, redemption came swiftly to both McCIlroy and Scott in the shape of the 2011 U.S. Open and 2013 Masters. However, redemption is rare. Just ask Nick Watney who lost a three-shot lead in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits with a closing 81, and Dustin Johnson, whose final-round 82 in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach two months before erased a similar advantage. Both men are still waiting for their taste of the game’s ultimate glory.

It’s difficult to win a Major, but a quick statistical survey indicates how hard it is to win any tournament. Consider the success rates of the two most dominant players of their respective eras. From first win to last, spanning 25 seasons, Jack Nicklaus won 73 PGA Tour titles in 450 starts, a success rate of just over 16 percent. Following the Majors of 2013, Tiger Woods had won 79 of 309 starts, nearly 26 percent. No surprise that they own the two highest Major totals, Nicklaus with 18 and Woods 14.

There are only four Major championships. In Jones’s day, they consisted of the Open and Amateur championships of the United States and Great Britain. Arnold Palmer established the modern Grand Slam in 1960 when he won the Masters and U.S. Open and then ventured to the home of golf, St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, for the [British] Open at a time when few American players entered the world’s oldest tournament. He reckoned that the PGA Championship completed the new paradigm.

“I’ve said many times that a good player can win a golf tournament but great players win major championships,” says Palmer, who won seven Grand Slam events. “When you think of the Majors, you think of the greatest tournaments in the world.” Indeed, the greatest championships in the history of the game.

The Majors are the genealogical link through the oldest game man has ever devised, the ultimate litmus test that is the only true comparative gauge for players competing in three different centuries. ‘Old’ Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Jones, Nicklaus and Woods all competed in different times with different equipment and against different competition. But they shared a common goal, and their careers can be assessed through the common challenge of conquering the most meaningful championships.

“The Major championships are the events in which you can compare golfers of yesterday with golfers of today, the only really true measurement,” says Nicklaus, who 27 years ago capped his career with his sixth Masters title. “With the advances in equipment you can’t possibly compare the game I played, or even the one Ben Hogan or Gene Sarazen or Bobby Jones played, with the game that is being played today. But we always have the Majors.”

“The test is there for all golfers, all across time,” says Padraig Harrington, who won his three Majors in the span of six starts in 2007-08. “We’ve seen tough golf courses and we’ve played against the best competition in the world. But it’s the magnitude of what the result means that puts the Majors in another spectrum of importance. It’s what we all want to measure our careers.”

In other words, to play for history can be an overwhelming burden that is at once welcome and withering. “In most people’s minds, the Majors are beyond their comprehension because they mean so much,” Nicklaus says. “That’s why Major championships are the toughest to win. In another sense, however, I can honestly say they’re the easiest to win, and by that I mean if a guy can get his act together, he can get a leg up psychologically.”

Therein, perhaps, lies the answer to the riddle: What does it take to win a Major? And how is it that golfers without much pedigree have been able to climb the mountain and mingle with the game’s most accomplished players? “There’s something to be said for sort of knowing when it’s your time, when it all comes together for some reason,” says NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, who won the U.S. Open and [British] Open. “But the reason Jack thought it was easy to win Majors was because he understood how it came together, what he had to do to repeat it.”

There’s a considerable collection of shooting stars, men who streaked like comets and won a Grand Slam tournament without ever winning much else. Think of Jack Fleck, Orville Moody, Tommy Aaron, Shaun Micheel or Paul Lawrie. Majors ask a lot of players. Sometimes it helps to ignore the questions or not ask a lot of oneself.

“One of the big things for me was that I had zero expectations that week,” says Rich Beem, the surprise 2002 PGA Championship winner, who fought off Woods at Hazeltine National for his only Major victory. “There was a point early in the tournament where I could have gone either way, where I was struggling a bit and thought I was going to miss the cut. But then it all turned around, and I just relaxed and played golf. I’ve never had that feeling before or since.”

Stewart Cink, who defeated Tom Watson in a playoff in a dramatic 2009 [British] Open at Turnberry, in western Scotland, recalls similar feelings. “It was a matter of low expectations that week. I was sick as a dog, and I wasn’t really playing all that great up to that point with not a lot of good finishes,” Cink recalls. “I didn’t have much in the bag that week, and I even remember telling [ABC broadcaster] Mike Tirico that I had nothing when I bumped into him. But then I went to the range and suddenly something clicked in my swing, and I played very consistently all week. I was at ease and content that week. I get pretty nervous coming down the stretch. Over there I was at ease. I stuck to my routine. Everything fell into place, and, obviously, that’s a week where you need to have everything working for you.”

That everything might even include fortune. “You can hit all the shots, but sometimes you have to be a little bit lucky, too,” says Woods, who in his last Major triumph, the 2008 U.S. Open, survived a playoff against Rocco Mediate despite suffering painfully from an injured knee.

David Duval, the 2001 [British] Open champion at Royal Lytham & St Annes, concurs. “There might be something that happens, it might even be on Thursday or Friday, where maybe you get a break and it saves you a shot or even more than one shot,” he says. “The key then is what you do with those breaks and how you handle little things. I remember coming down the stretch at Royal Lytham. I had parred 10, and as I walked to the tee someone in the crowd yelled, ‘Don’t worry. Still plenty of time to blow it.’ I thought to myself, ‘Not today.’ There was no way I was going to lose. I was totally at ease. But it wasn’t that different from other tournaments I had won. And I think having played in them, lived it, tried it, I was prepared for it by not mentally making it bigger than it is. Yeah, maybe Majors are different, but you can’t let yourself get caught up in making them different, harder or more important. You have to be yourself and see if that isn’t good enough.”

In other words, Majors might define a player’s career. But in the end, they really define the player himself. And whether that player is Ben Hogan or Ben Crenshaw, Jack Nicklaus or Jack Fleck, there comes a time when a golfer has to look inside and summon the best he has.

“The Majors are supposed to take more to win than other tournaments,” Nicklaus says. “They’re supposed to be about many things, more of a total examination on a fair but challenging golf course. Not only is it about the driving, but also the iron play, the short game, the putting, the test of your composure, your preparation, your approach and attitude and toughness. It’s about knowing when to back off, knowing when to get aggressive, and knowing that you’re facing all these challenges while playing against the world’s best players, the very best competition.”

You can compare Major champions as far back as the game has been played. Majors are what connect golfers of every era, the only truly equitable measurement. And the same will be true 100 years from now. You can win tournaments, and you can win championships. And history tells us the two are not at all the same.

Major championshipsRory McIlroy
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