Golf is peerless among sports when it comes to stretching often asinine arguments over the debate anvil and hammering furiously. Rules. Distance. Architecture. Course rankings. GOATs. Hall of Fame snubs. We’re flush with conflicts being fought in the more pedantic precincts of social media, and keyboard commandos will be busy this week on yet another familiar battlefield: Is the Players Championship the game’s fifth major?
It is golf’s most revealing question: a person’s position on the Players is a strong indicator of where they stand on most other contentious topics. It’s the red line traditionalists will not cross.
For some in the ‘No’ camp, the reasoning is delightfully simple: a rote pushback against the PGA Tour’s stealth marketing efforts to persuade us it’s a ‘Yes.’ But without a consistent standard by which the Players-as-a-major proposition can be judged, the motion can’t be dismissed as easily as traditionalists might imagine.
Golf has never had a ‘voice of God’ body that designates what tournaments are majors, so the list of events that have enjoyed elevated stature over the years has witnessed more entries and exits than the map of Europe. The Western Open was thought a major early in the last century, but no longer exists. Half of Bobby Jones’ grand slam was comprised of the U.S. and British Amateur titles, both long since dismissed from the modern accounting. Heck, the Open Championship remained a major through many lean years when it was oversubscribed with competitors more accustomed to stacking sweaters than stacked fields.
When we consider the characteristics shared by the four accepted major championships, the Players is not found wanting.
Historical tenure: Sure, the Players only began in 1974, but arguing that 45 years is insufficient vintage to confer stature is akin to suggesting that the Masters wasn’t a major in 1979, when it was as old as the Players is now.
Champions of caliber: Of the 38 men who have won the Players, 26 also won an accepted major.
An iconic venue: Check.
Unforgettable moments: Better than most.
A quality field: No other event boasts the depth of the Players, and certainly not a certain gathering in Georgia that annually assembles the smallest and shallowest pool of talent.
That leaves as the last line of defense against a fifth major the objection to scrambling the record books, retroactively rewriting the list of who won what. Which ignores the reality that no such unimpeachable list exists.
Walter Hagen is commonly credited with 11 majors, a total that excludes his five Western Opens. Gene Sarazen is granted a career grand slam on the back of winning the 1935 Masters, only the second edition of a tournament that was still a glorified buddies gathering for Bob Jones. Jack Nicklaus has spoken of his pride in passing Jones’ record of 13 majors at the 1975 PGA Championship, which means Jack counts Bob’s Amateur wins (five U.S, one British). Others do not. If we count Amateurs for Jones, why not add two majors to Jack’s total and three to Tiger’s?
What we currently accept as majors probably dates to Arnold Palmer’s 1960 season, when he won the Masters and U.S. Open then publicly declared his goal of completing a grand slam at the British Open and PGA Championship. Arguments against the Players as a major are based more on sentiment than on sense, a recency bias masquerading as fidelity to history books that have been rewritten more often than the Rules.
What do the players think of the Players? Ask a player. “This generation has really embraced it as the fifth major moreso than players of the past, when it was kind of forced on us to say this is a major,” said Paul Azinger, who claimed an undisputed major in 1993. “The problem is, there’s only four majors. There’s only four runs scored when you hit a grand slam. I think there’s four majors and that’s it. You can’t just all of a sudden say this is a major.”
He paused, immediately recognizing the shaky ground on which he was making a stand. “But that’s kind of what happened because the Western Open used to be a major back in the day,” he admitted with a wry laugh.
Azinger finally settled on the only thing of which he is sure. “It’s a phenomenal tournament and whether you put it in a specific category or not is irrelevant,” he concluded. “I’ve been in the last group there a few times on Sunday. It’s a nervous place to be.” Gwk