When US Amateur Stopped Counting as a Major

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For the longest time, Arnold Palmer used to think he won eight major championships.
 
Tiger Woods could say he has won 13 majors using that math, but he doesn't see it that way and never has. Ask him how many majors he has collected, and Woods doesn't hesitate to say the British Open last month was his 10th.
 
None of it really matters to Jack Nicklaus.

Whether he has 18 or 20 majors, he still holds the record.
 
``You could do it either way you want to do it,'' Nicklaus said. ``I could have 20 and Tiger could have 13. I mean, I don't care. But I can't imagine that anybody would have thought of the U.S. Amateur being a major in the last 10 or 15 years. Forty years ago, they still looked at it that way.''
 
Nicklaus spoke two weeks before the start of the U.S. Amateur, the oldest championship (by one day) in American golf and long considered a major title. He won it in 1959 and 1961 before turning pro, then captured the U.S. Open the following year for the first of 18 professional majors.
 
Somewhere along the way, the U.S. Amateur seems to have lost its status, if not some luster.
 
Edoardo Molinari of Italy is the latest champion, winning Sunday afternoon at fabled Merion Golf Club to become the first European winner since Harold Hilton in 1911.
 
The victory earned Molinari a place in history alongside some of the biggest names in golf -- Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Palmer, Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Woods. It gets him into the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.
 
But should it count as his first major?
 
It sure didn't for Mickelson. And it certainly won't for Nathaniel Crosby or Bubba Dickerson.
 
``That should be classified as one of the major championships,'' said Palmer, who won the 1954 U.S. Amateur before adding seven majors as a pro. ``I don't know who downplayed it or why they did. Until they downgraded it, I used to say I had won eight. I've sort of backed off of that now, because no one recognizes it any more.
 
``To not recognize it as a major is too bad.''
 
If not for the U.S. Amateur, there wouldn't be a Grand Slam.
 
This is the 75-year anniversary of Jones winning the four major titles of his time -- the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. George Trevor of the New York Sun referred to Jones' feat as the ``impregnable quadrilateral,'' while O.B. Keeler in the Atlanta Journal later called it the ``Grand Slam.''
 
And that's what inspired Palmer in 1960 to reinvent the notion of winning all four majors in one year.
 
He won the Masters and U.S. Open and was on his way to St. Andrews with Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Drum. They got to talking about Jones, and Palmer suggested a new Grand Slam.
 
``That became the talk of the town,'' Palmer said. ``They dropped the status of the Amateur, and I'm sorry they did that. How can you say Jones won the Grand Slam if you don't include the Amateur?''
 
Someone was still counting the U.S. Amateur when Nicklaus came around.
 
His victory in the 1973 PGA Championship at Canterbury gave Nicklaus his 14th career major to break Jones' record of 13 (five U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and one British Amateur). At the time, Nicklaus had won 12 professional majors and two Amateurs.
 
But when he won his last major at the 1986 Masters, the record he left behind was 18 professional majors.
 
What became of the U.S. Amateur?
 
``It's a major championship in the game of golf,'' Nicklaus said. ``But is it one of the ones that you want to put in that list? Because of Jones is the only way you would put it there. I accept it either way.''
 
Without the U.S. Amateur, Jones only has seven majors. Nicklaus still would have beaten the record at Canterbury with his 12 professional majors, one more than Walter Hagen.
 
Trying to determine when the U.S. Amateur lost its status as a major is as unclear as when the Masters and PGA Championship took over.
 
Woods brought the U.S. Amateur some attention by becoming the first male to win three straight years. But he never considered it a major. He suggests the demise of the Amateur came in the 1940s and 1950s, when Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson were the popular forces in golf.
 
``That's when professional golf got big,'' Woods said. ``They didn't play in it because they were all pros. I think that's when you can discount any guy winning the Amateur as being a major.''
 
Even Nicklaus says the U.S. Amateur as a major was ``borderline'' when he won in 1959 and 1961. He probably counted it toward his major total because the record he chased -- 13 by Jones -- included six amateur titles.
 
``A lot of people considered that a major at that time because of Jones' situation and what he did,'' Nicklaus said. ``I think as time has gone on, and so much focus has gone on the four professional majors, they just sort of dropped off.''
 
USGA president Fred Ridley is the last U.S. Amateur champion (1975) who didn't turn pro. Jay Sigel won in 1982-83 and remained an amateur until he turned 50 and tried the Champions Tour.
 
Golf at the highest level is now about professionals.
 
So are the majors.