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A Grand Idea

The concept of a slam of four major golf championships had its origins in the mists of antiquity, but it took Arnold Palmer to provide it with a modern definition and, in so doing, inject some much-needed commercialism and vitality into a stagnating game

When the world’s leading players assemble at St Andrews for the 150th anniversary of the British Open next July, they will in all probability be contesting a $10 million purse and pursuing a $1.5 million winner’s check.

In terms of prize money, global status, media profile and course set-up, the 139th version of the world’s oldest championship will be light years ahead of its 89th staging over the Old Course.

The only good thing the British Open had going for it in 1960 was that it was celebrating its centenary. As it proved, this was the allure that teased an entry out of a 30-year-old American who was rewriting golf’s history books at a whirlwind rate. And it was not long before the British Open began to feel the benefit of his blast of stardust.

Arnold Palmer had won The Masters for a second time that April and followed up two months later with a thrilling, come-from-behind triumph in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, Colorado—as it turned out, his only victory in his own national championship.

At the time, the only ‘grand slam’ concept to have entered the sport’s thinking was the annexing in one year of The Open and Amateur Championships of both the British Isles and the United States—a feat achieved just once, in 1930, by Bobby Jones and immediately dubbed by writer O.B. Keeler as ‘an impregnable quadrilateral’.

As the professional game grew stronger, the two amateur championships took a back seat. The old slam had thus faded into sepia-tinted obscurity and nothing had been devised to replace it in the public consciousness by the time Palmer decided to make his first challenge for the Claret Jug.

After adding the first of his four Green Jackets in 1958 to the US Amateur Championship he won four years earlier at the Country Club of Detroit, Palmer was swiftly installed as the heir apparent to what had hitherto been regarded as the golden generation of American golf—spearheaded by Snead, Hogan and Nelson.

Each of these men was a star performer with a devoted public following, but none could claim with any conviction, even at the height of his fame and prowess, that he was financially made for life. Indeed, Byron Nelson had walked away from the PGA Tour having helped himself to 32 titles between 1944 and 1946 because he reckoned running a farm was a safer and more lucrative way of earning a living.

At the time there was some merit to that view. In the decade or so after World War II, professional golf struggled to shake off its image as something akin to a travelling circus. Titles fell in the main to the usual suspects and the feeling gradually developed that the game was stagnating.

Palmer’s first win as a professional was in the 1955 Canadian Open and he claimed a further seven PGA Tour titles before that historic breakthrough victory at Augusta National. Like a meteor, he struck golf’s firmament just as Jones had done almost two generations earlier.

In truth, though, it was not until Palmer boarded his transatlantic flight two summers later, in the company of golf journalist Bob Drum from the Pittsburgh Press, that the concept of a modern version of the grand slam began to crystallize.

“My desire to play in the Open in Britain went back to my days as a schoolboy golfer when I read newspaper accounts of top American players like Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen winning there,” said Palmer. “I didn’t think you could become a world-renowned player unless you participated internationally. With the British Open being the foremost and most prestigious championship in the world, I felt it was one I had to play.”

At some stage on their journey—Palmer says it was “during our extended cocktail hour”—he and Drum started talking about Jones’s slam and how it could never be repeated. It was then that Palmer revealed his hand: “What would be wrong with a professional grand slam comprising The Masters, both Opens and the PGA Championship?” he asked. Initially Drum was quizzical, but gradually the idea struck a chord with the veteran reporter.

The fact that he had won the first two of these major titles in 1960 was no doubt a motivating factor in Palmer’s reasoning. They stopped off in Ireland so he could team up with Sam Snead at Portmarnock to win the Canada Cup [now known as the WGC-World Cup of Golf], and Drum started to spread the idea amongst the British journalists in the press tent.

When Palmer arrived in St Andrews to tackle the third leg of his self-defined quadrilateral, he was nearly washed away in a tidal wave of public support. “Everybody picked up on it [the grand slam idea] right away at St Andrews that year,” he said. Thus Palmer’s concept of the modern majors became popular reality even though, in truth, the fans were equally taken with his swashbuckling style and magnetic personality.

On this occasion, though, his trademark final-round charge was not quite enough to dislodge the 54-hole leader, Kel Nagle, and Palmer came up one stroke shy of the Australian.

But his love affair with the British Open had permanence and he duly lifted the Claret Jug at Birkdale the following year and successfully defended it at Troon in 1962. Both courses received the Royal assent shortly afterwards, and the British crowds loved him: his style, the way he hitched his pants, the way his powerful swing ended in a signature flourish and, most of all, the way he played. Palmer always went for the pin and fans could identify with that. Suddenly, Arnie’s Army had troops in a foreign field.

He also found himself a Scottish sergeant at arms in the shape of gnarled St Andrews caddie Tip Anderson, who played Sancha Panza to his Don Quixote for most of his Open tilts.

“He was invaluable on the Old Course. If I’d putted a little better, I would have won that first Open, but Tip was certainly the key to my playing well there,” Palmer recalls. “The only times I chose not to take his advice was when he wanted me to lay up and that wasn’t an inclination in my repertoire.

“He was also very good at Birkdale and Troon. He knew those courses very well. That was extremely important to me.”

Strangely, Palmer was never again a serious contender at the British Open, his best subsequent finishes being an eighth and tie for seventh at Muirfield (in 1966 and 1972) and seventh on his own at Turnberry in 1977.

Appropriately, he bade an emotional farewell to playing in the event from the Swilcan Bridge in 1995 and has not returned since. But he refuses to rule out the possibility of a sentimental visit at some stage. The most fitting time, surely, would be this year at St Andrews where his odyssey began half a century ago. After all, not only did he twice embrace the Claret Jug, he also gave the British Open as a whole the kiss of life.

Ironically, Palmer never completed his own personal grand slam because his best finish in the PGA Championship turned out to be three second places. Instead, he saw his Big Three rivals Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and more recently Tiger Woods, add their names to that of Gene Sarazen as the only men to have achieved the feat.

So does he still believe, nearly half a century later, that The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA remain the game’s four true majors, a grand slam to stand the test of time? “They stand above all the rest.” To this very day, so does he.

This article was originally published in issue 16.