CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Three majors down, one to go, and Jordan Spieth is now on the verge of joining the most exclusive club in golf.
Of the 13 men who have been in this position before Spieth, only five have gone on to complete the career Grand Slam: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
What does that group have in common? They all required no more than three attempts to capture the final leg, which suggests that, for everybody else, there were (and are) physical and psychological hurdles to clear. The longer the drought, the greater the pressure, and none of those legends dealt with what Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson now face – social media, increasingly brazen fans and a 900-person press corps asking the same question: So, is THIS the year?
Sure, there is a sense of inevitability to this quest, because no recent player has taken an eraser to the record books as often as Spieth. But some of the game’s greats surely felt similarly, only to go their entire careers without that final piece.
Spieth’s first shot at immortality, and his only chance at becoming the youngest to win all four majors, begins this week at Quail Hollow. Here’s what he can learn from his predecessors:
When Woods arrived at St. Andrews in July 2000, the Grand Slam buzz had built for only a few weeks. After all, a month earlier, he had demoralized his competition at the U.S. Open, winning by a record 15 shots. That type of form doesn’t disappear over the Atlantic, so another major romp just 36 days later seemed inevitable.
Sure enough, Woods turned the Home of Golf into his personal playground, storming to an eight-shot victory, the largest in 87 years at The Open.
Not only was Woods, at 24, the youngest to win the career Grand Slam, but he was the fastest, too – needing only 93 starts, compared with Nicklaus’ 125.
“They’ve been the elite players to ever play the game,” Woods said that day. “And to be in the same breath as those guys, it makes it very special.”
Besides Woods, the only other players to complete the career Grand Slam in their first attempts were Gene Sarazen (age 33) and Ben Hogan (40).
Sarazen won the third leg at the 1933 PGA, but he skipped the inaugural Masters (then known as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament) the following spring because he had previously committed to an exhibition in South America. When he finally debuted in 1935, Sarazen made an albatross on the par-5 15th – the shot heard ’round the world – and eventually won in a 36-hole playoff the next day. Hogan, meanwhile, earned his British Open title in 1953 – the only time he played the event.
Nicklaus and Player needed only three attempts to finish the Slam, though each posted a top-10 in their first try, including Nicklaus’ runner-up finish in the 1964 Open.
After Nicklaus broke through in 1966 at Muirfield, he was so overcome with emotion that he could barely speak during the trophy presentation. “Finally, I asked the people to excuse me and let me just stand there and enjoy myself for a moment,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It’s a moment I still enjoy recalling as much as any in my career.”
Not everyone experienced that euphoria, however.
For those who believe it’s simply a matter of when, not if, 20-somethings Spieth and McIlroy claim the final piece of the Slam puzzle, consider the careers of Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd.
All fell one major shy.
No one came closer in his first attempt at the modern Grand Slam than Snead, who tied for second at the 1949 U.S. Open at Medinah. That followed excruciating near-misses in 1939, when he made triple bogey on the final hole, and in 1947, when his opponent, Lew Worsham, interrupted play on the 18th green and asked for a ruling to determine who was away. An official ruled that Snead was indeed further from the hole, by about a half inch. “But I was so mad then,” Snead recalled, “that I couldn’t see straight.” He missed the putt and lost, his second of four runners-up in the event. Said Snead, “That’s the only regret I have, ever, is not winning the U.S. Open.”
Palmer played the PGA 34 times after winning the third leg and finished runner-up three times; Watson went 0-for-24. One Masters title away, Trevino failed to win in any of his 16 attempts at Augusta. Floyd didn’t even finish in the top 10 in nine tries at The Open.
Here is how those notables fared in their first attempts:
• Palmer: T-5, 1961 PGA
• Trevino: T-10, 1975 Masters
• Watson: T-9, 1982 PGA
• Floyd: T-16, 1986 Open
Lamented Palmer, in a 2014 interview: “I don’t think I’ll ever totally get over the fact that I didn’t win the PGA Championship.”
For Mickelson, the Grand Slam seemed like a pipe dream midway through his career.
A U.S. Open title appeared certain – because, really, how many times could the guy finish second? – but Mickelson had shown no signs of mastering links golf. That all changed in 2013, when he put together one of the best rounds of his life to steal The Open at Muirfield. Suddenly, at age 43, all that remained between him and the Slam was that elusive U.S. Open, which was returning in 2014 to Pinehurst, where all of his major heartbreak began 15 years earlier.
The storybook ending didn’t materialize and Mickelson tied for 28th, but that week didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. “I believe in the next five years I’m going to have three or four really good chances, and I do believe I will get it,” he said then. Except Lefty tied for 64th in 2015, missed the cut in ’16 and didn’t even show up at Erin Hills in June, choosing instead to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. His window might be closed; now 47, Mickelson would be the oldest U.S. Open winner in history.
McIlroy is 28, and in the prime of his career, but he too has scar tissue at the major he covets most. In 2011, he held a four-shot lead heading into the final round of the Masters but imploded with a Sunday 80, his various embarrassments now replayed each spring.
Augusta remains an ideal fit for his booming draws and towering iron shots, but every year since his collapse (and particularly since he won the 2014 Open to move to the brink of history) has created more pressure, more expectation, more doubt. It’s a vicious cycle: He admitted that he wouldn’t be “fulfilled” without a green jacket, but that burden affects his play each spring. Earlier this year he told Golf Digest: “I am – ask anyone who knows me – a complete prick in the week leading up to Augusta. But they understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation.”
In 2015, in his first attempt to complete the Slam, McIlroy finished a career-best fourth but never factored – through two rounds he trailed Spieth by 12 shots. Though he has added top-10s the past two years (and will head into 2018 with four in a row), he often has lacked the distance control and course management necessary to succeed. By Sunday night, he appears relieved that the Grand Slam talk is suspended for another nine months. “It’s another year and another missed opportunity,” he said in April, “but I’ll move on.”
Spieth is taking the long view, too, if only to quiet the noise heading into the final major of the year. Already this PGA feels similar to what he encountered two years ago at St. Andrews, where he was vying to join Hogan (1953) as the only players in the modern era to win the first three majors of the year. Unfazed by the enormity of the moment, Spieth surged into a share of the lead with two holes to play, only to fall one shot short of the playoff, a result that devastated his caddie, Michael Greller, who knew just how rare the feat was.
That experience should serve them well this week at Quail Hollow, because this opportunity is even more historic – it’s Spieth’s one and only chance to become the youngest to complete the career Grand Slam.
“I felt so free [at St. Andrews],” he said. “There wasn’t a care in the world. And that’s how I feel right now. I feel like I’m free-rolling.”
Indeed, the way Spieth views it, this is his first of probably 30 tries to achieve the feat.
“If it’s this year and it happens, that’s great – that’s another lifelong goal that we’ve achieved,” he said. “But I believe that I’ll do it someday, so if it happens next week, then fantastic, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not going to be a big-time bummer whatsoever, because I know I have plenty of opportunities.”
One a year, in fact … for however long it takes.