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Original Issue


The odds are probably a million to one against any golfer winning the Grand Slam, the sport's four major championships, but next year the best players—and a bettor—might have an edge

No matter how good he is or how good he thinks he is, there is not a golfer playing today who can realistically plan his entire competitive year around winning all four of golf's major championships—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA—and thus achieve the modern game's version of a Grand Slam. Each year would result in a big letdown if a golfer made the Slam his sole aim because the odds against achieving it are astronomical. And yet there are years and there are years. I am convinced that with the right set of golf courses, a little luck and a great deal of careful preparation the Grand Slam can be won. Next year may be such a year. I am also convinced that as each leg fell, the next leg, contrary to what you might think, would be that much easier to capture.

Of course, when you talk about a Grand Slam you mention it in connection with only a handful of golfers who really have had or will have a chance, the Joneses, Hagens, Hogans, Palmers, Players and just a few others who are currently active. To have any kind of shot at the Slam a golfer must possess a very strong, well-rounded game, one without basic flaws. That is an obvious must. Even the best players suffer shotmaking weaknesses from time to time, but they can iron these out through careful preparation for each major event. To a golfer of this caliber, pressure is something that tends to produce better play, not worse. Pressure is something that will frighten only the pro who is not absolutely sure of himself and of what he is doing. What I believe would happen to the man fortunate enough to win the first two legs of the Slam is that he would then develop such superconfidence about his game that it could possibly carry him right through to the final victory.

Something like that must surely have happened to Ben Hogan in 1953. That year he started out by winning the Masters by five shots. Two months later he took the U.S. Open by six shots. Then he went to Carnoustie in Scotland and won the British Open by four shots. In those days the PGA was a match-play tournament, and the winner had to survive 36 holes of golf for five consecutive days. Even so, Hogan might have won the grueling PGA Championship except for the fact that it was held during the same week as the British Open.

Superconfidence has almost always been part of Arnold Palmer's mental approach to golf, and you could certainly see it working for him during 1960 when he made such a good run at winning the Slam. Like Hogan in 1953, Palmer dominated the major championships of 1960, but his method was quite a bit more hair-raising: a birdie-birdie finish to win the Masters by one shot, a final-round 65 to win the U.S. Open by two shots and finally his loss in the British Open at St. Andrews by a single stroke to Kel Nagle. Hogan came as close to a Grand Slam as the schedule would allow, and Palmer barely missed repeating Ben's triple (Arnold finished seventh that year in the PGA). These two performances demonstrate that the Slam is not an impossible goal.

To a betting man, the picture should look something like this. At the start of the season the odds against a Grand Slam seem incalculable, let us say one million to one. The right player winning the first tournament, usually the Masters, might bring the odds down to 1,000 to one. Then, should he win the U.S. Open, the superconfidence factor would become such a great asset I would say that the odds against his completing the Grand Slam would drop to less than 10 to one. By that time I think his confidence would be so high that he would not even consider the possibility of losing. And you cannot overestimate the power of confidence to inspire great golf.

It seems to me that 1972 will provide the best opportunity in a long while for someone to win the Grand Slam. This is because of the quality—in a sense, the difficulty—of the golf courses on which the four championships will be held. The Masters is always at Augusta and I do not need to elaborate on what a fine layout that is. The U.S. Open will be at Pebble Beach, the British Open at Muirfield and the PGA at Oakland Hills. These are all courses that put a high premium on fine, all-round shotmaking. Consequently, the number of players capable of winning each championship will be greatly reduced. Often a major event is played on a course where the winner gets by only because he can scramble around the greens and putt well. This will not be the case next year, so there is much less likelihood that a long shot will finish first in a major event.

Given these favorable circumstances, I know that several players will be making a special effort to score a Slam next year. They can be thankful that the Slam they seek is not the one that Amateur Bobby Jones won back in 1930. Jones' medal-play victories in the U.S. Open and British Open were considerably easier than they would be today because there were only eight or 10 golfers he really had to worry about beating. Today there are perhaps 60 players who are potential winners. But I, for one, would never trade stroke-play conditions for the match-play ordeals Jones had to go through in the British and U.S. Amateurs that year. For example, in the British championship he had to survive seven rounds of 18-hole match play and then a 36-hole final. No matter how well Jones performed, he could have been put out of either tournament in an early round if one of his opponents happened to have a hot streak. You can control your own medal score by good play, but what control do you have over a hot round by somebody else on a certain morning?

My short-lived attempt at trying for a Slam this year at least provides an example of one way to go about it. This year the first major event, the PGA, was scheduled in February. Normally I go to the West Coast in late January for two or three tournaments, just to get in some golf and some relaxation. I build myself up gradually for the Florida tournaments where I really go to work in earnest preparing for the Masters. This year, with the PGA so early, I played hard in the California tournaments, practiced a great deal on returning home to Florida and, by the time of the championship, my game was in good shape all around.

As a result of my PGA victory I decided to compete in only two Florida tournaments prior to the Masters. At Augusta you have to hit the ball high and drop it softly on the greens. In Florida you fight the wind constantly, trying to keep the ball down, and you are forced to hit shots off thin, dormant Bermuda turf. It is a different game. So I played only at Doral and Jacksonville, where the courses, if not exactly like Augusta National, require more or less the same kinds of shots. I was therefore able to go into the Masters with the same swing that had won the PGA. The only problem really was to control the impatience that began to build during the six weeks between major tournaments. As we were packing to leave for Augusta, I said to my wife, "Barbara, if I win the Masters, I'm going to be twice as miserable to live with as I was between the PGA and now." What happens is that you get your mind channeled down, focused on one thing to the exclusion of all else. When I get in that frame of mind some of my friends have a phrase that describes me, "a German with blinders." Fortunately, Barbara understands and has been great about it.

At Augusta, instead of having to hone a new swing the way I usually do, I arrived with just the one I wanted. All I had to do was round it off. I was better prepared for the 1971 Masters than for any tournament I have ever played in. I felt that every facet of my game was in shape. I did not seem to be having any trouble with anything, which for me is extremely rare. I cannot recall any tournament before where I did not have at least one or two weak shots that I would be scared to play. This is where pressure will bother you. If you do not successfully pull off that particular weak shot when you need it, you lose confidence. Then all of a sudden this lack of confidence multiplies and begins eroding the rest of your game.

I certainly did not have that problem at Augusta. I had the kind of confidence that is likely to build up in any player making his run at the Slam. All week long I knew I was going to win the tournament. With six or seven holes to play on the final day I was tied for the lead and I still knew I was going to win. I figured I was certain to birdie the par-5s, 13 and 15, and even an eagle might pop up very easily. I have won three times at Augusta and so by now I also know how you have to play 14, 16, 17 and 18. I know where the danger spots are, how to get safe pars and how to charge the holes for birdies. I felt that I would get at least one birdie out of that group and that would be what was needed to win. I am not the only player who gets this kind of feeling in a tournament, but it only happens to any of us once in a while. You do not feel the least bit scared, for a change. You are prepared and know you are going to play well and do well. You know that it is going to happen. And usually it seems to work out that way.

But sometimes it does not work out. I did not get the birdies on that final stretch at Augusta; Charles Coody did. To say the least, I was disappointed. The last time I had a similar feeling was in 1964 when I set my heart on winning my second straight Masters, did not win it and then permitted the subsequent letdown (SI, June 1, 1964) to ruin my whole year. Now I am older and better equipped to handle such a situation. After Augusta this year Barbara and I and our four children went to the Bahamas and at the end of a week I was not even thinking about golf. Soon after, I was back on the tour, back on a regular schedule and I am now thinking positively about the U.S. Open at Merion three weeks from now.

So much for Jack Nicklaus and 1971. Now let us say it is 1972 and we have a Masters champion who is looking forward to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It is Slam time again. He will have two months between the tournaments, but it is the second month that is critical. What he should probably do after the Masters is take a couple of weeks off, get away from the pressure and excitement of the tour, returning to a less hectic, more reflective state of mind. This is important, I think, because it is so easy to get mentally and physically untracked after winning a major tournament and it is very hard to get back in the groove again. He will want to return to competition for one or two weeks between the Masters and the Open, but he will have to pick his spots carefully, playing only on courses that call for the same kind of shotmaking that Pebble Beach requires. Everyone on the tour knows Pebble Beach, since we play it each January in the Bing Crosby. Then it is wet and lush. But Pebble Beach in June is quite a different proposition—the weather is warmer, the course can be hard and dry, playing fast the way a true links should. The Masters champion will therefore want to get to Monterey a week or so early to study the course under these changed conditions and to adjust his game.

Suppose all goes well and the Masters champion now becomes the U.S. Open champion and has two legs on the Slam. Then comes the British Open, possibly the most critical test of all. For a really good player, the British Open can be the easiest of the major championships to win. The reason for this is that so few players are accustomed to the special conditions—the turf, the gorse, the deep rough, the wind, the strange bounces, the hard greens and possibly the smaller British ball. Adjusting takes study and experience. Tony Lema went over to St. Andrews in 1964 and won the British Open after playing only one practice round, but Lema was having an amazing streak of golf at the time. That kind of thing is not going to happen very often. I think that anyone who really wants to win the British Open should go over immediately after the U.S. Open and start getting ready. This is what Hogan did in 1953 when he took the championship at Carnoustie. The golfer should arrive early enough to become better prepared than anyone else to deal with the unusual conditions. Sure, other players could do that, too. But only a few will do it and only a few of those will be able to adjust even if they try.

Which brings us to the PGA at Oakland Hills and perhaps the completion of the one million-to-one gamble. It is nice to muse on the possibility of a Grand Slam. I am as optimistic about my own chances as it is possible to be. This year was the first time I ever felt that I was playing well enough to win it, and my game seems to be improving each year. I am more experienced, more mature in my approach to each shot.

I sincerely hope that someone will be able to make a real run at the Slam and give the public a taste of real drama again. Golf has not had much drama in the past decade, hardly any since Palmer came along in 1960 and started out so well. Now the game badly needs some excitement.

Of course, my theory about super-confidence could be all wrong. Maybe someone will win the first three major events, and then be in such a nervous state from all the fuss and the tremendous effort involved getting even that far that he will find it hard just to make the cut in the PGA. I don't know for certain how I or anyone else would react in that situation, but there are a number of us who would love to find out.