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Monday, September 21, 2020

One Major title or 18 – they’re all special to those on golf’s glory list 

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The 9-Hole Course is back in the limelight, and none more so in Ireland than Cruit Island, Mulranny, Castlegregory and Bushfoot

Thank you PGA Tour, PGA of America, the players, and everyone else who had a role in presenting golf fans worldwide with a genuine Major Championship at Harding Park, San Francisco. 

The 2020 US PGA Championship was the real deal, with the world’s best players casting a welcome shard of light amidst the gloom of the Covid-19 crisis despite the lack of spectators. 

That said, golf is a great sport for television and millions of viewers were enthralled by Collin Morikawa’s dramatic first Major title win. 

In these abnormal circumstances, the entire production and presentation of the Championship gave those of us watching from afar an opportunity to step off the Covid-19 Fear Train for a few days – and nights – given that there was an eight-hour time difference between our side of the Atlantic and San Francisco. 

Outside the ropes must have been weird for the players, although they have been getting more accustomed to the silence around them since the PGA Tour resumed tournament play in June. 

Inside the ropes, each player faced a battle to master the course and his own inner game on a day of destiny.  

Morikawa did it better than all the rest, leaving pre-tournament likely lads such as Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy trailing in his wake. And once again, this Championship produced a first time winner of the Wanamaker Trophy. 

Funny thing about the US PGA –  it seems on paper to be the “easiest” of all the Majors to win but author Alun Evans in his excellent book “The Golf Majors 2020” looks deeper into that notion. 

Evans says: “Often may we ask the question, ‘Which Major is the easiest to win and which is the hardest’? But should we be really asking, ‘Which Major is the hardest to win again’?  

“Based on the following list, it clearly shows the answer to the first may be also the answer to the last. 

“The PGA Championship has more single-time Champions than the other Majors so it must be easier to win; however, if that is the case, why don’t these singletons win again?” 

Interesting question. Evans notes that in the US PGA history, played 103 times now, there have been 52 champions who never again won the Wanamaker trophy and 37 of them never won a Major again. 

On the broader topic of all one-time winners of the four Majors since 1958, the year that the PGA adopted a stroke play format, the stats reveal that the Masters to date has produced 17 ‘singletons’: the US Open, 19; The Open Championship 20; and the US PGA now has 28 with Morikawa’s victory.  

Among those who have won a single Major are our own Fred Daly (Open Championship 1947);  Graeme McDowell (US Open 2010); Darren Clarke (Open Championship 2011); and Shane Lowry (Open Championship 2019). 

Of the current players, McDowell is highly unlikely to win another regular Tour Major; Clarke won’t; and Lowry has time on his side to regularly challenge in the game’s top four Championships. 

That said, let’s resist the temptation to take any Major title victory for granted. It’s not too long ago that an Irishman winning a Major in the modern era was a dream, hardly anything more than a worthy aspiration until Pádraig Harrington broke the mould with his Open victory in 2007. 

Since ’07, the tally is 10 Majors for the Emerald Isle, with McIlroy (4) and Harrington (3) adding to those achieved by GMac, Clarke, and Lowry. 

In the greater scheme of history, Americans, traditionally, by virtue of their huge population and over 20 million golfers, have dominated the Majors, with 128 players winning 269 Championships between 1860 and the recent US PGA Championship. 

The USA list includes such luminaries as Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, but included on the Yanks’ honours roster are two players who performed audacious snatch-and-grabs at The Open Championship. 

Yes, I’m talking about Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton, the 2003 and 2004 Claret Jug winners respectively. Theirs is a tale that should forever offer inspiration to any pro golfer who gets to tee it up in a Major Championship. 

Curtis and Hamilton completely defied the odds, the former at that beast of a course, Royal St George’s, in ’03 and Hamilton at Royal Troon the following year. 

Don’t get me wrong – they could play and earned their slot in the starting line-up for those Opens. But how did Curtis, then aged 26, rated number 396 in the world playing in his PGA Tour rookie year, and Hamilton, aged 38, a journeyman pro who plied his trade mainly on the Asian Tour, shock the golfing world – and arguably, themselves? 

For me, Fate, Destiny, call it what you will, was in play those years. Curtis had never been to Europe. He travelled to The Open with fiancée Candace as much to see the sights as to play in his first Major Championship.  

Ambition? To make the cut.  

Well, Ben did that and more because after 54 holes at Royal St George’s, the hitherto unknown lay two shots off Thomas Bjorn’s lead, alongside Tiger Woods, Kenny Perry, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh. 

On Saturday night, Candace quietly asked Ben: “How do you feel about tomorrow?”  

His reply: “I just kind of looked at her and said, ‘I’m going to win.’ 

I mean, it wasn’t cocky or anything, just felt comfortable. I wasn’t nervous or anything like that. I was just having fun with what I was doing and just really took to playing the links golf that I’d never played before.” 

The rest is history. Curtis focused on his own golf and got the job done, aided by Thomas Bjorn’s spectacular implosion over the closing holes. 

Hamilton, born in Galesburg, Illinois, came into a different but no less sensational category as a Major champion. 

A hardened, experienced pro, he came back from a successful career in Asia to gain his PGA Tour playing rights via Q-School in 2003 – his eighth attempt to win his card. 

In March 2004 Hamilton won the Honda Classic and in July arrived at Royal Troon to play The Open. His record in the Championship was uninspiring- missed cut in 1992, tied-45 in ’96, and missed cut in 2003.  

In a golfing sense, nobody saw him coming, least of all Ernie Els, defeated by the American in a four hole playoff after they finished 72 holes tied for the lead. 

Hamilton, like Curtis the year before, had that blessed feeling of calm certainty about his game and how he was going about it on that epic Sunday in Troon. 

He took it all the way to lifting the Claret Jug, thereby earning a totally unexpected, but deserved, niche in the annals of Major Championship golf. 

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