CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s a unique time in golf as the game is practically slammed with slams.
Jordan Spieth will take his first crack at the career grand slam this week as he tries to earn the PGA Championship’s Wanamaker Trophy to go with his green jacket, U.S. Open trophy and newly acquired claret jug.
This week’s favorite to deny him the prize is Rory McIlroy, who in April will make his fourth attempt to secure his own career slam with a win at the Masters Tournament where Spieth will likely be favored.
Then there’s Phil Mickelson, the aging veteran in this drama, who will get another chance to finish his slam in next year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock, assuming none of his children are graduating that week.
Not since 1986 have three golfers under the age of 50 had chances to polish off career slams at three different events – but Lee Trevino (Masters), Raymond Floyd (British Open) and Tom Watson (PGA) were all past their primes at that point.
Only five players have ever finished the career slam – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – while eight others finished their careers stranded on third base.
“That’s almost like the Holy Grail in our sport to win all four at least once,” said Ernie Els, who has only managed two legs among his four major wins.
Spieth (24) and McIlroy (28), in particular, haven’t even reached their primes as they seek to join the most exclusive club in golf.
“I think it’s cool that we’ve both had the success that we’ve had at such a young age, and I think the coolest part about it is the question of, what’s it going to be like for the next 20, 25 years,” Spieth said Wednesday.
Fresh off his third major victory at last month’s British Open, Spieth has the chance to eclipse Woods as the youngest player to accomplish the feat if he can win at Quail Hollow. The young man who valiantly chased the single-season grand slam in 2015 said the weight of history is the least of his worries behind the golf course and his peers this week.
“Expectations, I really don’t feel any,” Spieth said. “This is a chance to complete the career grand slam. I’m here, so I’m going to go ahead and try. But I believe I’m going to have plenty of chances, and I’m young enough to believe in my abilities that it will happen at some point.
“I just don’t feel (added pressure). It’s not a burning desire to have to be the youngest to do something, and that would be the only reason there would be added expectations. The more years you go on playing PGAs, and if I don’t win one in the next 10 years, then maybe there’s added pressure then, and hopefully we don’t have to have this conversation in 10 years. But if we do, then it might be different.”
McIlroy can attest to that a little bit. He’s already had three goes at winning the green jacket to complete his slam and finished in the top 10 each time. He admitted in April that the long build-up before the season’s first major every year has added a layer of pressure on his shoulders.
McIlroy believes Spieth has the benefit of not having to think about it too long since winning at Birkdale only three weeks ago.
“I guess for me winning (the British and PGA) in 2014 and having that long wait till the Masters in 2015, it’s a very long time and it plays on your mind a little bit,” he said of hype leading to his first career slam attempt at Augusta. “I think that’s where Jordan doesn’t have to deal with that coming into this week. It’s great to be able to ride on the crest of a wave and just sort of keep it going.”
Spieth agrees. He likens the state of his game this week to where he was in 2015 when he won the Masters and U.S. Open before finishing one shot out of a playoff in the British at St. Andrews and runner-up at the subsequent PGA.
“It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that’s so fresh in my mind,” he said. “I’m so happy about that that I can’t add pressure to this week. I’m free-rolling. And it feels good. I’m about as kind of free and relaxed at a major than I think I’ve ever felt. Maybe since Chambers Bay, arriving after the Masters and just, you know, almost like I’ve accomplished something so great this year that anything else that happens, I can accept. That takes that pressure, that expectation away.”
Momentum and the benefit of time are no guarantees in the slam game. Arnold Palmer was at his peak in 1961 when, like Spieth, he left Birkdale with the claret jug and took his first chance at the career slam two weeks later at the PGA.
He finished tied for fifth and never did win the Wanamaker Trophy in 23 more appearances at the PGA, finishing runner-up three times.
Sam Snead was in the prime of his long career in 1949 when he came straight off his first Masters victory to get his first crack at the career slam two months later at the U.S. Open. He finished runner-up for the third of four times in his national championship, as the U.S. Open trophy became his white whale in 23 career slam attempts.
Mickelson knows a little something about that. He’s already finished runner-up a record six times in the U.S. Open and his best chances are behind him as he’ll turn 48 the weekend of the 2018 tournament at Shinnecock – where he finished a heart-breaking second to Retief Goosen in 2004 just two months after his breakthrough major victory at the Masters.
Mickelson hasn’t finished better than 28th in his three chances to complete the slam since his 2013 British Open win at Muirfield.
“It’s been my kind of career goal that I set out when I was a kid to try to win all four because it shows what a complete player you are to play under all those different conditions,” Mickelson said. “But the greatest accomplishment for me – whether I win a U.S. Open or not – was winning the British Open. I thought that was going to be the toughest one for me, given the conditions and links golf, bouncing the ball up. And to be able to come out on top there was kind of a career-defining achievement, I feel.”
Maybe this will be Spieth’s week to define himself among the elite of the elite.
However it turns out, we’re lucky to be witnessing a special window of greatness in golf’s rich history.