With only five players in history to have achieved this feat, most recently Tiger Woods, winning a Grand Slam championship in men’s professional golf is one of the most difficult tasks in the sport.
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Since Jack Nicklaus became the fourth member of the group at the 1966 Open, only one player – Woods – joined the club. But for the better part of the past decade, three players have been knocking on the door.
Phil Mickelson’s surprise victory at the 2013 Open left only the US Open on his to-do list. (Easier said than done.) In 2014 and 2017, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth won their third stages in the Four Opens as well, adding to the excitement and creating a three-man Grand Slam that continues to this day.
While McIlroy needs to win the Masters to complete the slam, Spieth’s next shot comes at Southern Hills this week, where he just needs a PGA Championship title to finish the job.
What other players have flirted with slams? What traits did the five winners of the four slams share?
The definition of a “grand slam” has evolved since Bobby Jones won the 1930 US Open, the US Amateur Championship, the Open Championship, and the (British) Amateur Championship – the four most prestigious titles in golf at the time. This is the old slam. In this exercise, we’ll use the modern definition to win all four men’s professional disciplines.
History shows that it helps to complete Slam early. None of the five players to end a slam run needed more than three chances to reach the final. Three players – Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan Woods – won the first time they had a chance to close it. Sarrazin won his first Master’s tournament in 1935, and Hogan won the only Open Championship he ever played in 1953. Summer at St. Andrews.
Once their third stage of their slam was secured, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus needed only three attempts to complete the task, a player at the 1965 US Open and Nicklaus at the Open Championship the following year. Smoke of history revolving around a player going to the final match over and over again? not helpful.
There are 12 players credited with winning three of the four men’s teams that make up the slams. Some, like England’s Jim Barnes, were disqualified from the right quest for that fourth game simply because they were playing in the wrong era. Barnes won the three oldest majors, but, unfortunately, he was 47 years old when the master’s program was first held in 1934. He never competed at Augusta National.
Walter Hagen was 41 at the time of his first Masters tournament and had already won 43 of his titles in retrospective 45 PGA Tour. His best result in Augusta was a T11 in 1936.
Tommy Armor was 37 when the first Masters was played, and retired from full-time professional golf in 1935, a year after it was founded. However, he finished T8, his best ever result in the master’s program, in 1937, at the age of 40.
The missing piece from Byron Nelson was the Open, a tournament not held from 1940 to 1945 due to World War II. He played in The Open only twice – in 1937 (tied for fifth), and in 1955, nearly a decade after he retired from full-time competition professionally.
In two cases, a fairly sudden big win at the end of your career made a slam finish unlikely. When Raymond Floyd won the US Open in 1986, he was – at the time – the biggest winner in the history of that tournament. Floyd needed Claret Jug to finish the slam, and he played The Open nine times after winning the US Open, but he never finished better than 12th.
Phil Mickelson finished second at the US Open by six places. But his best chance of winning that tournament came before he won the Open at Muirfield in 2013. Since that win, Mickelson has yet to finish 25th in the US Open, which is the key thing he needs to join the Grand Slam club.
At the age of 34, Lee Trevino won the 1974 PGA Championship, his first Wanamaker Cup, and the third stop in Slam’s career for Trevino, who was only missing the green jacket. Trevino’s relationship with Augusta National was complex; In his prime, he said publicly that he didn’t like the place. At the start of his career 20, his best finish came after winning the first three stages of the Slam, tying for 10th in 1975 and again in 1985.
Arnold Palmer won the 1961 Open at Royal Birkdale at the age of 31, starting his third stop at the Slam. Palmer only needed a PGA Championship to complete it, and he would have finished second three times, in 1964, ’68 and ’70. The 1968 PGA game at Pecan Valley Golf Club was the closest any player got to closing a Slam without doing so, as Palmer had put eight feet into the 72nd hole to force Julius Boros into a playoff, but missed. If you thought McIlroy or Spieth might be exhausted from all the Slam talks, consider this: Palmer has played the PGA Championship 34 times and only needs that tournament to complete it.
Sam Snead finished runner-up at the US Open four times, twice after winning the third second leg of a slam at the 1949 Masters Tournament. Looking back, he lost four chances to win a Grand Slam when the US Open was halted for World War II. 1942 to 1945. In 1953, Snead started the last round with a single shot behind Ben Hogan, but closed with 76, and Hogan escaped with his fourth US Open title.
The numbers indicate that Snead’s quest for a slam was painfully close as, if not more so, Palmer. From 1937 through 1959, 102 men competed in 20 or more rounds at the US Open. Among that group, Snead ranked fourth in strokes earned: total per round (3.49) and average scoring (72.89), but he never won. In that period, he finished in the top five seven times.
In 1982, Tom Watson, then 32, won the US Open title in Pebble Beach, giving him three legs of the slam. Headed to the PGA at the Southern Hills after finishing fifth, first and first in the season’s major tournaments, but Raymond Floyd would open with 63 that week and win Wire-to-wire, while Watson tied for ninth.
Watson needed only a PGA to complete a slam, and he collected six of the top 10 finals there, including in 1993, when he was 43 years old. One of 10 players within two shots of Greg Norman entering the final round, Watson smashed the seventh hole to enter one. Sadly, that was as close as he could get, as he finished fifth. From 1982 to 1993, Watson scored an average of 71.8 in the PGA, a top 10 player in that period.
McIlroy and Spieth
Since winning The Open in 2014, McIlroy has had eight matches at the Augusta National, and only needed to win the Masters to complete the slam. While his best result (runner-up) came in this year, McIlroy started the final round with ten shots behind Scotty Scheffler. His best chances there came in 2011, when he was chasing his first major title and lost his four-shot lead in the last round 80, and in 2018, when he was in the final duo with Patrick Reed in the fourth round. (Reed) hit 1 under the score to win, McElroy 2-on 74 to tie for fifth.)
Jordan Spieth is one of three modern-day players to have won three Grand Slam rounds before the age of 24. The other two – Nicklaus and Sarrazin – finished the job. This will be the sixth start for Spieth in the PGA that he needs to complete a slam. His best finish in this stretch was a tie for third place in 2019, when Brooks Koepka won a head-to-head match. After winning and runner-up in his last two matches, Spieth is riding his best form before the PGA so far with a chance to close out a Slam.
None of the five Grand Slam club members made the final stage in the PGA Championship. Already a notable name in golf history, Spieth has a fantastic opportunity to be the first to do so this week in Oklahoma.