The good news for Jim Furyk is that he won’t have to hear the word major for the next half year or so. The same for Tiger. The same for Phil. The majors, the majors, the majors. Enough already!
The fact is, the just-concluded 2013 season was a study in excellence. Adam Scott in April at Augusta. (Classy!) Justin Rose in June at the U.S. Open. (A man, and an engineer, in full.) Phil Mickelson in July at the Open Championship. (Best British redemption story since A Christmas Carol.) Jason Dufner at the PGA Championship. (Give the man an Oscar for keeping that game face on.)
Here’s to you, A-Rose McDuf. (A contraction, not a Belfast metal band.) You’ve had the m-word served up to you by newspaper reporters and TV interviewers, by fans and pro-am partners, by your agents and your in-laws, and you lived to tell the tale. Mazel tov.
Your why-the-majors-are-different quotes won’t be needed again until next year’s Florida swing, when the scribes from The Augusta Chronicle will come around to report for their 2014 Masters preview stories. So go off and enjoy yourself. Just one thing before you do. Do you think, Messrs. Scott, Rose, Mickelson and Dufner, that you’ll ever win another major?
There’s a reason veteran talents like Furyk, David Toms and Zach Johnson, to cite three players from last week’s top 11 finishers at Oak Hill, have been stuck at one major each for a combined 28 years. Winning a first major is hard enough. Ask Dustin Johnson, who had his sixth top 10 in a major last week. Winning two or more? Since the end of World War II only 42 men have done it. So should it come as any surprise that since the start of the 2009 season, the 20 majors have been won by 18 players, 14 of whom remain stuck on a single title?
This year alone produced three first-time major champions. (Phil got his fifth.) There’s a proven recipe to get that first one. You win on Tour. You take your talent to Olympia Fields, Augusta National, the Atlanta Athletic Club, Oak Hill -- wherever the schedule tells you to go for the major golf fun. You treat the course as a course and not some priceless Oriental rug that may be walked upon only in surgical slippers. You grind for 72 holes, you accept that some of those holes will be played imperfectly, and come Sunday night your name will (maybe) be engraved alongside the gods.
Now you’re looking for a second. On nearly a daily basis somebody asks you how you won your major. When you miss back-to-back cuts, you start looking at tape from . . . the week you won your major. Your new endorsement deals all have clauses that will pay you big bucks for . . . your second major. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Shaun Micheel won the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill and nothing since. No minors, no majors -- nothing. He missed the cut last week, just as he did in the other nine events he has played on the PGA Tour and the Web.com tour in ’13.
Furyk won his major two months before Micheel got his, at the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. He has won eight tournaments since then, and he has been a serious contender in eight majors since his Open win. But in each of those eight majors something went wrong, most commonly on Sunday. Furyk knows how to win. He knows how to close. His struggles in the majors over the past decade have nothing to do with his skills. They have everything to do with his head. And that’s why we love the majors.
On Sunday night, Furyk was asked, “Is it hard to treat majors differently from ordinary tournaments?”
“Yeah,” said Furyk, who took a one-shot lead into the final round last week but finished second, two shots behind Dufner. “It’s hard to talk yourself into the fact that a major is [just] a golf tournament. I realize it’s a major. We’re judged by how many tournaments we win. The best players are judged by how many major championships they win. You get four pops a year.”
That’s really the issue. The players have a couple dozen weeks a year in which they may pay for their Jet Skis and enrich their unborn grandchildren. They have four weeks a year to make their names glitter forever. Their families know it. Their peers and their public know it. And they know it. This judgment business is a heavy load.
Dufner, who at the 2011 PGA blew a five-shot lead with four holes to play and lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff, knew what he was playing for, even as he tried to block it from his mind. “The crowds [at majors] are bigger, and the courses are tougher,” Dufner said on Sunday night. “You know where you’re at. You try to act like it’s not a big deal. But it’s a pretty big deal.”
And who made it a pretty big deal? Bobby Jones did. Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Clifford Roberts. Grantland Rice and Dan Jenkins. The New York Times and Sports Illustrated and their subscribers. CBS, the BBC, Golf Channel, ESPN. Officials at the USGA, the R&A, the PGA of America, Augusta National, the faces changing but the message staying the same. The marketing arm of the sports-industrial complex is at work on the players’ heads in ways they couldn’t possibly know. Poor guys.
Fox just agreed to pay the USGA $95 million a year for 12 years beginning in 2015 to broadcast the U.S. Open (and a handful of other USGA events). You know what that means? The U.S. Open just got way, way harder to win. (The old rights-fee number was $40 million a year, NBC and ESPN combined.) Why will it be harder? Because Fox will want some figurative fruit from its $1.1 billion investment. Which means the network will sell the national championship like the old June event has never been sold before. Some of that Fox money will go to the players. But their nervous systems will pay for it. The higher the stakes -- history, money, status -- the more the nerves jangle.
Nobody will be immune, and nobody is. One of the predictions after Scott’s victory at Augusta was that now the major floodgates would open for him. Last month at Muirfield and last week at Oak Hill, in the thick of it, he played weekend shots that were flat-out duffs. Remember that pitch shot at 13 on Sunday that did not sniff the green? The Konica-Minolta BizHub SwingVision Camera will show you what went wrong, technically. But you’d have to study a real-time Adam Scott brain scan to know what really happened.
Even Woods is not immune to these pressures, external and internal. It’s now painfully obvious that he cares about how he judges his own golf career, how we judge him and how history will judge him. Since his last win in a major, at Torrey Pines in 2008, Woods has played in 51 ordinary Tour events -- not majors -- and won 14 of them. A staggering ratio. In the last two years alone, he has won four times in his last event before a major, which would suggest his game was peaking at just the right time. And yet since his win at that U.S. Open on one leg five years ago, he has played in 18 majors and won none of them. That is not a statistical anomaly. That’s a head case. He will never admit it publicly. There’s no upside. The golfer must be both hyperrealistic and conveniently delusional.
Dufner knows what he has gotten himself into. He was asked on Sunday night about what will be different now, now that he has won his first major.
“It’s definitely going to change my life, but I’m determined that it’s not going to change me,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult task.”
Insightful words from the cleanup hitter as this year’s excellent major season draws to a close. You get the feeling Dufner could actually win a second major. But it’s going to be a difficult task.