Best Players Not To Win The Grand Slam

This week a lot of attention is focused on Phil Mickelson and his pursuit of the career Grand Slam of Golf—winning all four of the “Modern Majors.” It is especially poignant because Pinehurst #2 is the site of one of his six near misses. In 1999, he came in second to Payne Stewart who sank a fifteen footer to avoid a Monday playoff. Stewart died five months later in a plane crash.

If Phil has the worst US Open hex, the legendary Sam Snead is a close second. Slamming Sammy finished second four times, leaving the US Open as the only vacancy in his own career Grand Slam. Snead counted seven Majors among his 88 career victories: three Masters, three PGA Championships and an Open Championship. He surely would have traded two of those PGAs for a US Open.

Arnold Palmer also won seven majors; four Masters, two Open Championships and a US Open. The blank spot on his resume, however was the PGA Championship.

Palmer’s shortfall is ironic, because it was he who came up with the idea of the Modern Grand Slam. On a plane flight to the Open Championship in 1960, Palmer was asked by Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Drum about Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam: The US Open and Amateurs, and the British Open and Amateurs. Palmer had just won the Masters and US Open, but as a pro, couldn’t win the Jones Slam. Palmer then pontificated that the modern (professional) slam would be the Masters, US Open, Open Championship and the PGA Championship. The idea stuck.

I always found it lamentable that he left out the Western Open, which was considered a major tournament by the likes of Walter Hagen and Byron Nelson. It complicates things, though, once you start counting people who won two of the Moderns, and the Western. This list, therefore, will only deal with those who came up one short in the Modern Majors.

Byron Nelson’s career was short (he retired at age 34), but prolific. He’s best known for his 11 consecutive wins and the character with which he led his life. But he also won five majors. Sadly, he was not able to bag an Open Championship. To be fair, though, this was before Palmer conceived of the Modern Slam. In addition, in those days, American pros for the most part did not travel to Britain for the Open. It was too expensive, and the payoff too small. Further, Nelson played his best in the immediate postwar era, when Britain, with its shortages and rationing, was not exactly a prime vacation spot. Nelson won a Western Open, so count him among those with four professional Majors.

Also playing his career before the Modern Slam was defined was Walter Hagen. Hagen won eleven Majors as they currently are defined, but if you add the Western Open, the count of majors for his time rises to sixteen. Hagen never won a Masters, but that tournament was begun when he was in the twilight of his career. In my mind, he also won different professional Majors, if you include the Western.

Tommy Armour had a similar situation to Hagen. Playing his best golf in the 1920s and 1930s, Armour won the US Open, the British Open and a PGA Championship. Seven starts at the Masters, however, yielded nothing. He was forty when the first Masters was played, however, and was retired from competition in 1935, the year after the first Masters. Armour also won a Western Open, so add him to the list with four different Majors.

Lee Trevino had none of the disadvantages of Nelson, Hagen and Armour, but he did have his own issue: Augusta National. Trevino says that he never felt comfortable at Augusta, where his minority status stood out. He won the US Open, British Open and PGA twice each, but a t-10 was the best he could do at the Masters.

Raymond Floyd won four Majors: two PGA Championships, a Masters and a US Open. He fell just short at the Open Championship in 1978, finishing second to Jack Nicklaus.

Finally, there is the ageless Tom Watson.  He has five Open Championships (and darn near a sixth at age 59), two Masters and a US Open. The PGA Championship, however, eluded him. In 1978, he lost in a playoff to John Mahaffey (?!).



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