Long before Arnie, Jack and Gary; before Sam, Byron, and Gene; before the World Golf Hall of Fame or the Champions Tour, and back when Nike was still just the Greek word for Victory, the official starters of the Masters tournament, the guys who shuffled to the first tee on dew-strewn Thursday mornings to get the festivities underway, were Jock Huthison and Fred McLeod.
Huthison, winner of the 1920 PGA Championship in a long-forgotten match over J. Douglas Edgar, and the 1921 British Open Championship, finally made the Hall of Fame last year. And while neither he nor McLeod ever won the Masters (Hutchison was two months shy of age 50 and McLeod was 52 when the first one was played), they both won majors at Augusta National, and both hold the distinction of winning the only tournament other than the Masters ever played there: the first two Senior PGA Championships.
A lot of the fans who tune in to see the play at Harbor Shores this week will have no idea that the Senior PGA Championship isn’t just the oldest senior major: it’s the oldest senior tournament by decades. Hutchison and McLeod were among the small group of professionals that created the “senior division” of the PGA back in the mid-1930s, but for the better part of 45 years, their championship, the Senior PGA, was the only event.
The U.S. Senior Open didn’t come along until the summer of 1980, the year that, not coincidentally, Arnold Palmer turned 50. The Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) kicked off that same year with players like Don January, Charlie Sifford and Roberto De Vincenzo winning titles. By then, the Senior PGA Championship was gray around the temples.
Hutchison won the inaugural event in 1937; McLeod, who had won the 1908 U.S. Open at Myopia Hunt Club in Boston, took the second Senior PGA, both at Augusta National. If Bob Jones hadn’t delegated the running of the club to Clifford Roberts, it might have continued as the host. But Roberts worried about it interfering with their fledgling spring invitational, so the Senior PGA Championship went on the road.
In 1940 the tournament set a record that still stands for the longest playoff in history, a 36-hole showdown between Hutchison and Otto Hackbarth. Hackbarth, the head professional Cincinnati Country Club and the Scotty Cameron on his day, known for creating some of the best putters of the early twentieth century, won the playoff in large part due to his putting.
Those are a few of the reasons why payers like Kenny Perry and Fred Funk consider this the premier senior event.
Just look at the trophy. Past winners include Jack Burke Sr. (father of Masters and PGA Championship winner Jackie Burke), Paul Runyan (back to back winner in 1961 and ’62), Gene Sarazen (also a two-time champion), and Dick Metz. Sam Snead won it six times; Julius Boros twice. Jack Fleck of Ben-Hogan-upset fame won it in 1979, and Fred Haas, who won 12 straight tournaments as an amateur before turning pro in 1945, added the Senior PGA to his resume in 1966.
This tournament is the history of professional golf: two-time winners also include Don January, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, and Jay Haas. Gary Player won it three times; Hale Irwin four.
Jack Nicklaus, who is onsite at Harbor Shores this week, won the Senior PGA once, as did Raymond Floyd and five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson.
Tournaments aren’t deemed majors through press conferences or sponsor dictates. The title is earned through years of great championships and even greater champions. On that front, no over-50 event can match the Senior PGA Championship.
One look at the history says it all: nothing else comes close.