Following the oddest year in major championship golf in 2020, with the Masters being played in November, we hopefully return to a normal schedule of the game’s biggest events in 2021, The Players Championship leading the way on March 11.
Last year’s Players was the first Covid casualty, abandoned after the first round on March 12. The PGA Tour only resumed again at Colonial on June 11. The Open Championship and Ryder Cup weren’t played in 2020, while the PGA Championship went ahead in August (where it used to be on the calendar until 2018) and the US Open in September (not for the first time).
The revised 2020-21 PGA Tour schedule has 50 tournaments and includes two US Opens and two Masters.
While many may have been astounded to see a major played in November, there have been five previous instances. The PGA was a wandering star in the earlier years of the last century, having no firm date on the calendar. In 1936 it was played in November, in 1929 in December.
We have to remember it was not considered a “major” back then. The original “grand slam” was the US Open, British Open, US Amateur and British Amateur, achieved only once by Bobby Jones in 1930.
We now have the rare situation of the Masters being the final major of 2020, and the first of 2021, but this again is not unprecedented. The PGA was the final major of 1970 and the first of 1971. It was played from February 25-28 in Florida to avoid the oppressive August heat. The original PGA National course in Palm Beach Gardens was owned by John Macarthur, who wielded influence within the PGA, and he wanted the championship at his course in his lifetime.
Jack Nicklaus won his 11th major at age 31, and PGA National was close to his home. Staying with him as a house guest that week was Gary Player, who contended before falling back into a tie for fourth. The late Dan Jenkins, writing in Sports Illustrated, records an amusing media interview on the final day:
Someone dutifully asked Gary what they had enjoyed for breakfast in the Nicklaus household.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jack. “He puts catsup (tomato sauce) on everything, anyhow.”
“Barbara’s getting a complex,” Nicklaus went on. “She gives him a cheese omelet, he pours catsup all over it. She cooks him a steak, he pours catsup all over it. A couple of fried eggs, catsup all over it.”
No major has been played in January.
GOOD MEMORIES FOR RORY
Ocean-side courses are the theme for three of the men’s majors, meaning wind will likely be a factor.
On the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, near the city of Charleston in South Carolina, the PGA is being played at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in May. It was last there in August 2012, when Rory McIlroy claimed the second of his four majors at age 23, which meant he was younger than Tiger Woods to that achievement. He was still dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
The Ocean Course, said by Golf Digest to be designer Pete Dye’s “most diabolical creation,” is often considered to be the first course designed for a specific event – the 1991 Ryder Cup, or War on the Shore, which proved one of the most dramatic contests. South Carolina until then was not a major golf venue. That’s changed, with the Country Club of Charleston hosting the 2019 US Women’s Open.
The Ocean Course is linksland meets wetlands – every green has tricky slopes, every hole is edged by sawgrass, every bunker merges into bordering sand dunes – and high winds in the 2012 PGA resulted in a brutal second-round scoring average of 78.1, highest in the history of the championship. PGA club pro Doug Wade shot a 93, Paul Casey an 85.
McIlroy was in glorious form though, winning by 8 with a 13-under total of 275. The surprise runner-up was Englishman David Lynn, who subsequently retired from golf in 2014 due to tendonitis in his right elbow.
Pete Dye gets to display his “talent” for putting tour players on edge a second time in 2021 when another of his magnificent creations, Whistling Straits, hosts the Ryder Cup.
RETURN TO TORREY PINES
The US Open was at Pebble Beach in 2019, and returns surprisingly soon to another Pacific Ocean venue in June, Torrey Pines (South) outside San Diego in southern California. It’s a public course, part of a 36-hole facility, subjected most of the year to heavy traffic.
It sits in a gorgeous location atop cliffs, similar in places to Pinnacle Point. However, unlike Pinnacle Point and Pebble Beach, the 18th hole finishes well away from the ocean. For the majors it’s a rare par-5 closer, with an intimidating water hazard in front of the green. It’s the closest any 18th hole in a US Open has come to resembling the fictional 18th in the movie Tin Cup.
Torrey Pines (South) is one of a few US Open courses not considered good enough to be included in the United States Top 100. It is ranked No 36 by Golf Digest in a list of America’s Best Public Courses.
Sadly missing following his car accident will be Tiger Woods. Torrey Pines is where he played some of his finest golf. Eight PGA Tour victories, the most famous his US Open playoff triumph in 2008, hobbling around for 91 holes with a double stress fracture in his left tibia and a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Afterwards he admitted playing against the wishes of his medical staff.
Tiger didn’t play again that year, after 46 consecutive majors, the first of his lengthy absences. It was his 14th major title (and third US Open) and he was to wait another 11 years before claiming No 15 at Augusta National in 2019.
AN ANCIENT LINKS
The Open Championship was played for 31 consecutive years in Scotland before an English course was added to the rota in 1892. That was the first of 14 Opens at Royal St George’s (founded 1887), one of the world’s great links, beautifully isolated in a world of its own alongside the English Channel in Kent. No traffic or trains disturb its peaceful setting.
Royal St George’s is a liberating contrast to many of the tightly confined links in the UK, its holes spread among a large area of rolling linksland, wandering here and there, constantly changing direction.
Bobby Locke won the first of his four claret jugs in a playoff over Irishman Harry Bradshaw in 1949 at Sandwich – the name of the small historic town nearby. Bradshaw may have won but for his now celebrated stroke out of a broken beer bottle in the second round. Uncertain of his rights when he found his ball sitting in the base of the bottle, and with no rules official around, he closed his eyes and took a swipe, moving the ball just 20 metres.
What is not commonly known about that Open is Locke refusing to go out on the Saturday for the 36-hole playoff (it changed to 18 holes in 1964) until the flags were moved. In those days they were left in the same position on every green for all four rounds. Locke’s defiant stance prompted the present practice of having new pin placements each day. Locke, with two exceptional rounds of 67-68, won the playoff by 12 strokes, the 67 being his lowest Open score.
After his victory Royal St George’s was left off the Open rota for 32 years until returning in 1981, ostensibly because of the difficulty of access for spectators. However, after the European Tour held the British PGA Championship there in 1975, with Arnold Palmer the victor, it became clear to The R&A that Royal St George’s could no longer be omitted. Between 1975 and 1985 the club hosted five PGAs and two Opens.
The last Open champion there is a man now plying his trade on the Champions (Senior) Tour in America. Irishman Darren Clarke was 42 when he captured his only major trophy in wet and windy weekend weather in 2011. Pegwell Bay can be stormy. The 1938 Open saw fierce winds on the final day rip the exhibition tent apart, and send scores into the 80s.
This ancient links is known as an unpredictable layout with blind shots and unruly bounces, which might explain why five of its six Open champions since World War Two were first-time winners of a major. Greg Norman was the exception in 1993. The most surprising was American Ben Curtis in 2003, No 396 in the World Ranking.
FIVE WOMEN’S MAJORS
The five women’s majors in 2020, all to be shown on SuperSport, continue a recent trend of visiting three classic courses which have previously hosted a men’s major. A weakness of women’s majors in previous years had been the relative insignificance of some of the courses on which they were played.
This changed in 2015 when the PGA of America took over the old LPGA Championship – South Africa’s Sally Little won that title in 1980 – and renamed it the Women’s PGA Championship. A tournament that had been played at a handful of ordinary layouts for 60 years was raised to the same level as the US and British Opens by taking it to the best championship courses and almost doubling the prizemoney to over $4 million.
The women play their majors in April, June (two), July and August, and the Women’s PGA is No 3 in the order, at the Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course in Georgia where the men’s PGA equivalent was won by Keegan Bradley in 2011, David Toms in 2001, and Larry Nelson in 1981.
The Highlands Course is able to host a major in the extreme heat of summer in Georgia due to planting a revolutionary ultradwarf Bermuda grass (Champion) on the greens prior to the 2011 PGA. It putts like bent grass, yet thrives in the heat, whereas the previous bent grass greens required electric fans and constant watering to keep them alive.
Atlanta AC also replaced the grass on their tees and fairways, and this may have prompted the turf grass changes at Leopard Creek in 2017.
The Olympic Club in San Francisco has hosted five men’s US Opens; the US Women’s Open there in early June will be the first in its 75-year history. The Women’s British Open stays in Scotland, making a second appearance at challenging Carnoustie.
The last occasion in 2011 was played on what the greenkeeper described as a “watered-down” version of Carnoustie. The Ladies Golf Union, who ran the event before merging with The R&A in 2017, had set “Carnasty” up at a shortish 5 934 metres, 851 less than the men’s 2007 Open. Yani Tseng of Taiwan won on 16-under, and commentators called the LGU out of touch with how the modern female golfer can play.
RYDER AND SOLHEIM CUPS
The nine major championships are played from April to August, followed in September by two highly anticipated team events between the United States and Europe. Three weeks separate the women’s Solheim Cup from the Ryder Cup. Europe hold both trophies, but the Americans have home advantage.
Because of last year’s postponement of the Ryder Cup, this will be the first time since 2002 the two biennial contests have been played in the same year and month. While it’s fine this year, with fans starved of team golf rivalries, it’s an unfortunate clash going forward. They should be played in alternate years, so each can enjoy special status. The LPGA did feel that way after 2002, and immediately had another Solheim Cup in 2003.
The 2019 Solheim Cup was a thrilling event at Gleneagles in Scotland (the US leads the overall count 10-6), and this year it is being held in Ohio at the Inverness Club, a vintage Donald Ross design, with a Monday Labour Day finish.
The 1931 US Open at Inverness is remembered as one of the most unusual majors. It lasted 144 holes. After the customary 72 holes from Thursday to Saturday there were back-to-back 36-hole playoffs on Sunday and Monday between Billy Burke, the winner, and George von Elm. Burke became the first US Open champion to use steel-shafted clubs, and it was the first tournament to feature the large 1.68-inch ball. Furthermore, it was the first US Open to be broadcast around the country, on national radio.
Ryder Cup venue Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan (an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee) was originally a US military base until being transformed by Pete Dye in 1998 in to what Golf Digest describes as an imitation of Ballybunion in Ireland. It is said to have too much rub-of-the-green areas for the comfort levels of many tour pros. Can anything be read into the fact there was not one American winner in the three US PGAs played there between 2004 and 2015?
THE SENIOR OPENS
A South African hasn’t won one of the game’s biggest trophies in almost nine years (32 majors) – Ernie Els at the 2012 Open – and our best chance of something special happening this year would appear to lie in the Senior majors, where Els and Retief Goosen are a giant presence. The US Senior Open and Senior British Open are both being played in July, before and after the Open at Royal St George’s.
These are two trophies which carry considerable weight and prestige, and the last South African to win either one was Gary Player in the 1997 Senior British at Royal Portrush, in an all-SA playoff against John Bland. Back then, however, it was not part of the Champions Tour, and only became a senior major in 2003.
Player won three Senior British titles (in 2018 they were retroactively given major status), and back-to-back US Senior Opens (1987-88). Simon Hobday also won the US event at Pinehurst in 1994.
Mark McNulty lost a playoff for the Senior British at Sunningdale in 2009, and the beautiful heathland course south of London is the 2021 venue for a third time.
Goosen, 52, already has a senior major to his credit, the 2019 Senior Players Championship at Firestone CC, while 51-year-old Els has yet to make his debut in either the US Senior Open and Senior British Open after they were postponed last year.
GOLF’S 14 SPECIAL EVENTS IN 2021
Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass, Florida, March 11-14
Rory McIlroy (from 2019)
ANA Inspiration, Mission Hills, California, April 1-4
Masters, Augusta National, Georgia, April 8-11
PGA Championship, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island,
South Carolina, May 20-23
US Women’s Open, The Olympic Club, California, June 3-6
A Lim Kim
US Open, Torrey Pines (South), California, June 17-20
US Women’s PGA, Atlanta Athletic Club, Georgia, June 24-27
Sei Young Kim
US Senior Open, Omaha CC, Nebraska, July 8-11
Steve Stricker (from 2019)
The Open Championship, Royal St George’s, England, July 15-18
Shane Lowry (from 2019)
The Evian Championship, Evian Resort, France, July 22-25
Jin Young Ko
British Senior Open, Sunningdale (Old), England, July 22-25
Bernhard Langer (from 2019)
Women’s British Open, Carnoustie, Scotland, August 19-22
Solheim Cup, Inverness Club, Ohio, September 4-6
Ryder Cup, Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, September 24-26
HOW THE 2021 COURSE VENUES RANK
- Augusta National, No 2 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Whistling Straits (Straits), No 21 in America’s 100 Greatest
- The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, No 24 in America’s 100 Greatest
- The Olympic Club (Lake), No 33 in America’s 100 Greatest
- TPC Sawgrass (Stadium), No 49 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Inverness Club, No 88 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Sunningdale (Old), No 15 in Golf Digest World 100
- Carnoustie, No 20 in Golf Digest World 100
- Royal St George’s, No 28 in Golf Digest World 100