On Sunday, one player will not only win a golf tournament, but he will also make history by winning one of the four major championships.
But the pressure is not only immense four weeks out of the year. Every week on the PGA Tour, a missed putt here, a bad drive there can be the difference between winning, making the cut or being sent down to the mini tours.
So I talked to major champions past and present, and a few players who have been oh-so-close to winning one of the four biggest prizes in the game, to hear their thoughts on the pressure of trying to win a regular Tour event vs. a major championship.
Jack Nicklaus, 18-time major champion: "It’s the same, in my opinion. In other words, to me the tournament has nothing to do with it. Historically, I put more emphasis on trying to win a major, and I built my schedule around the majors. But because of my preparation, a major was, in some ways, probably easier to win because I was better prepared to win it. But I put the same effort, thought and focus no matter what tournament it was. I just played golf."
Retief Goosen, 2001 and '04 U.S. Open champion: “They both are tough. The pressure is tough. In the majors it’s just more embarrassing if you fail. And it’s so much easier to fail because of the toughness of the courses. But otherwise it’s just that little bit of extra pressure because of what it is, and it’s a major. And it depends how your game is. For instance the first U.S. Open I was very nervous coming down the stretch, and in the second one I was a little bit more comfortable because I had more experience.”
Gary Player, nine-time major champion: "The difference is night and day. Every tournament is a challenge, but the major championships are in a class of their own. The prestige of a major win is what so many golfers strive towards. When you’ve won a major, you know you’ve made it as a golfer. As a boy in Johannesburg, winning a major seemed like the ultimate test in golf. All of my hard work would finally pay off, and I could be counted as one of golf’s top players. So I dreamed that I would one day win these tournaments, and I have been blessed to attain that dream nine times and achieve the career Grand Slam."
Justin Leonard, 1997 Open champion: “It’s different just because the opportunity doesn’t happen that often. When you do, the tendency is to try almost too hard to make it happen. So if you’re sitting there contending, you’re obviously playing well and in your element. But especially the first time or two it’s a little daunting because you just don’t really know how often it’s going to happen.”
Curtis Strange, 1988 and '89 U.S. Open champion: "The pressure was ten-fold at times. You knew how big of an event it was. You knew subconsciously the history of the event. You knew this was one of the four. You knew … everything. You didn’t think about it, but you knew subconsciously. For instance you take the Masters, there’s pressure there. You know the history of the event, the history of the club. You’re going to the same golf course every year. The greats of the game, the ghosts in the pine trees of Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Nicklaus, Sarazen, all of them. That to me was pressure because it was the same golf course every year. You try not to think about any of that stuff, and you really don’t, but you can’t help it. You know. You’re a fan of the game, you know the history of the game. You just kind of had to block it out. But it was hard.”
Jason Day, three-time PGA Tour winner: “They’re similar pressure, but I would say that the majors are intensified by … I couldn’t put a number on it. It’s intensified to the point where you can seize up. Like when I was leading Augusta on 16 (in 2013), and I had three holes left, and I honestly felt like I couldn’t breathe. It’s pretty amazing. Rather than if I’m at a normal tournament, obviously there’s a lot of pressure and you want to win, and you’re thinking about it, but it’s intensified that much more.”
Nancy Lopez, three-time major champion: "There was always so much hype that went with the majors that it could get into your head. You thought that you had to be better than you normally had to be, because the rough was higher, and you had to hit it straighter, and the courses were longer. You would prepare practicing from the back tees.
"But I didn’t mind pressure. I felt it, but I liked it. I like that sensation, of almost being able to feel every nerve in your body. I seemed to be able to pull off shots when I felt pressure, not all the time, but I loved doing it, hitting that great shot knowing it was a pressure shot.
"When I was over putts that mattered at the end of tournaments, I’d tell myself, 'It’s now or never.’ I didn’t want to go extra holes, and I was able to make a lot of those putts at the end of tournaments."
Jordan Spieth, two-time PGA Tour winner: “I like to think not much, but when you’re at a major it’s different. It’s a different feeling. You know you’re there, you know it’s the ultimate goal instead of the goal between the ultimate goal … There’s just a little bit of extra ambience around the air and just kind of makes it feel a little more special, and maybe that makes it a little bit harder to win.”
Keegan Bradley, 2011 PGA champion: “You realize the significance … it’s a lifetime. As opposed to winning a tournament, it’s amazing, it’s great, but majors last for a lifetime. So it’s significantly different.”
Webb Simpson, 2012 U.S. Open champion: “Yeah, it’s a little more in a major, but at the end of the day fundamentally you’re still trying to win a golf tournament. So the pressure is there, but you still want to perform. Just a little bit more, nothing crazy.”
Hunter Mahan, six-time PGA Tour winner: "All the majors have so much outside pressure. Everything’s amped up, you can see it and feel it. Everything about it is different. You can feel that as soon as you get there, so it’s just a lot … a lot of outside influences."
Davis Love III, 1997 PGA champion: "Ten times. I think a regular tournament you get nervous the last nine [holes]. In a major you get nervous before you start.”
Zach Johnson, 2007 Masters champion: “Well, technically there shouldn’t be any difference, but there is because of the magnitude, the history, just what it requires mentally down the stretch and the experience that it demands. Winning a Tour event is not easy. It’s hard to win. The other difficult thing is it’s not like half of our events are majors, there’s only four. So that adds to it, too.”
Trevor Immelman, 2008 Masters champion: “Well, the actual answer is no because golf is golf and winning a tournament is winning a tournament. The only difference is with the major championship that’s how people are remembered in the game is winning championships – Super Bowls or Stanley Cups or Oscars or in our case major championships. From that stand point you can separate yourself if you win one.”
Brandt Snedeker, seven-time PGA Tour winner: “It’s just ratcheted up a little bit. Obviously there’s pressure when you’re trying to win a tournament. But majors, obviously I haven’t been able to do it, but majors there’s more of a fine line between good shots and bad shots. Good decisions, bad decisions. There’s a really, really fine line. Everything is just magnified. It’s just the most intense pressure you can put yourself under besides the Ryder Cup, I think major pressure probably goes hand-in-hand.”
Vijay Singh, three-time major champion: “I think it’s the same. I think there’s more pressure on the guys who’ve already won the regular tournament and have not won a major The pressure of playing the tournament’s the same. One creates their own pressure. One makes their own pressure.”
Additional reporting by Randall Mell