With the PGA Championship being contested this week, the order of golf’s major championships is changing for the first time since 1971. But the familiar rotation of Masters in April, U.S. Open in June, Open Championship in July, PGA Championship in August hasn’t always been followed. And as history shows, some of golf’s most iconic champions – from Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open to Ben Hogan in the 1953 Open to Jack Nicklaus in the 1971 PGA Championship – have won memorable majors at what might appear to be odd times of the year.
Take Nicklaus’ victory in the ‘71 PGA, which completed his second trip around the career Grand Slam. If playing a major in May seems odd, how about competing in one held in February? That’s what happened when the PGA Championship was moved from summer to winter to avoid Florida’s oppressive August heat. The tournament was held at the original PGA National GC in Palm Beach Gardens, which was owned by John D. MacArthur, who was, as Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated, “practically the owner of the PGA itself.” Jenkins explained the date change came about because, “MacArthur wanted the championship to be played at the course sometime, and since hot old Florida certainly couldn’t be the site in July or August, traditional time for the PGA, February was elected.”
You can switch months, but some things don’t change. It was Nicklaus’ ninth major victory as a professional, but at the time it was considered to be his 11th – along with his two U.S. Amateurs.
That marked the only time a major was held in February, but majors had previously been played in nearly every month. The 1934 Masters was completed in March, and the 1928 PGA Championship was held in December. Five majors – most recently the 1936 PGA – were held in November. September and October have seen their share of major competition, too. The Open Championship was quite often a fall event in the 1800s, and the PGA Championship spent much of the pre-World War II era bouncing around the latter months. As for the U.S. Open, Francis Ouimet’s famous win in 1913 was one of seven national championships held in either September or October. In fact, January is the only month in which one of the four professional majors hasn’t been contested.
Oftentimes, the majors were held so close together that golfers couldn’t play in all of them. In 1953, when Ben Hogan won the Masters, the U.S. Open, and Open Championship, he was not able to compete in the PGA Championship. The final round of that tournament, won by Walter Burkemo in Birmingham, Mich., was played on July 7. By that time, Hogan had already been in Great Britain for nearly two weeks, practicing with the smaller British golf ball for The Open at Carnoustie, which began in earnest on July 8, with qualifying held on the previous two days. (Although, to be fair, Hogan likely wouldn’t have played in the PGA if it was held in August, as the match-play format, with multiple rounds in a day, was a physical hardship for the man who’s horrific injuries in a 1949 automobile accident nearly ended his life.)
The most recent date change for the PGA Championship came just three years ago, as the tournament was held in July, having been moved up a few weeks because of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Jimmy Walker won at Baltusrol, on July 31; two weeks after Henrik Stenson won The Open. It marked the first time since 1968 that two majors were completed in the same month. That was the year The Open finished eight days before Julius Boros, at age 48, won the PGA Championship at Pecan Valley.
But back to May and this year’s PGA, which will be the eighth major to be held in the year’s fifth month. The most recent was the 1949 PGA Championship, which was won by Sam Snead at Hermitage CC in Richmond, Va., while the tournament was still of a match-play variety. The PGA also concluded in May in 1937, 1942, and 1948, while the Open Championship was completed in May in 1897, 1928, and 1929. Interestingly, all seven champions (Snead and Walter Hagen twice, Ben Hogan, Denny Shute, and Harold Hilton) eventually became members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. So it appears this week’s PGA champion at Bethpage Black will be following in some mighty big footsteps.