European Tour owes PGA Championship debt of gratitude
Sam Torrance was in ebullient mood when he stepped off the Royal Birkdale’s 18th green after the final round of the 1991 Open Championship. Not because he’d finished T44th: he’d received an invitation he never thought he’d get.
The Scotsman had just been told he was going to play in his first PGA Championship.
“I’m over the moon,” Torrance said. “I never dreamed this day would come.”
Torrance was 37 in 1991. He’d played in five Ryder Cups and won 13 European tournaments, yet he’d never played in the PGA Championship, which takes place this week at Harding Park in San Francisco. He’d only played in one Masters, and had yet to play in the U.S. Open. We’re talking a European Tour stalwart here, someone who helped Europe go undefeated in the previous three Ryder Cups. He wasn’t exactly some rank and file player. Yet he’d made just one appearance in an American major to go with playing in every Open Championship since 1972, with two top 10s in that run. The Scotsman finished fifth in 1981 and T9 in 1984.
You’d have thought those two top 10s alone would have earned him some respect from the three American majors. None whatsoever.
Torrance wasn’t alone. Other Ryder Cup stalwarts and multiple European Tour winners didn’t get the recognition they deserved in those days.
Mark James made his debuts in the PGA Championship and U.S. Open the previous year. He, too, had only played in one Masters before these two events. His 1980 appearance was the only time he teed it up at Augusta. He played one more U.S. Open, and eventually played the PGA Championship six times.
James, who won 18 times on the European Tour and played in seven Ryder Cups, went two places better than Torrance in the Open Championship, finishing T3 in 1981. It didn’t cut any ice with the organisers of the three U.S. majors. James wasn't invited to any of the three the following year.
Eleven-time European Tour winner Howard Clark also made one Masters appearance in a distinguished career. The six-time Ryder Cup star played in just one U.S. Open and two PGA Championships.
Ken Brown had to play the PGA Tour to qualify for the Masters and PGA. His 1987 Southern Open victory earned him his one Masters invite in 1988. He played in three consecutive PGA Championship from 1986. He never played a U.S. Open.
We’re talking Ryder Cup heroes, multiple European Tour winners in Torrance, James, Clark and Brown.
Brown took drastic action to get recognition. The four-time European Tour winner and five-time Ryder Cup competitor said:
“They were a closed shop to all but the superstars like Seve. I wouldn’t have played in any American majors if I hadn’t got my PGA Tour card.”
Former European Tour chief executive Ken Schofield worked hard during his tenure to get European Tour members into the U.S. majors. He constantly badgered U.S. officials to recognise the wealth of talent just behind the big six of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ian Woosnam. The 1991 PGA Championship was a watershed moment in that campaign.
Torrance wasn’t the only European Tour member outside the big six to play at Crooked Stick in 1991 when John Daly rocked the world of golf. Steven Richardson finished fifth. David Feherty seventh. Australians Mike Harwood, Craig Parry and Peter Senior, all European Tour members, also played.
Schofield was a strong advocate of using the world rankings as a basis for major championship fields. It eventually happened thanks to the PGA of America paving the way in the early 1990s. The PGA of America pushed the door ajar and the other two American majors followed suit.
Nowadays we take it for granted all good Europeans, not just the superstars, play in the four majors. It just didn’t come soon enough for great European stars like Torrance and company.
#JustSaying: “It was almost impossible to get PGA Tour invitations, so it was no surprise we couldn’t get into the majors.” Howard Clark