From 1949 to 1957, one event drew the best players from around the globe. Its field was better than the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the PGA Championship and in some years the Masters. The purse was many times that of any other tournament.
It was called the World Championship of Golf – no relation to the current World Golf Championship events or the World Series of Golf, which went through many iterations two decades later. Today, the WCG is as little remembered as long-gone Tam O’Shanter, the posh club outside Chicago where it was held. But in its day, the event was part of an annual two-week golf pageant, as impressive then as it is unimaginable today.
At the 1954 WCG, Jack Burke Jr. finished tied for second to Bob Toski and took home $7,500, three times more than Burke earned in any of the 10 tour events he had won up to that time. In 1956, Burke would win both the Masters and the PGA Championship, and he is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Reached at the Champions Golf Club in Houston – which he co-founded with three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret in 1957 – the nearly 99-year-old Burke dismissed the notion that the WGC was on par with the majors. “No. No. No,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to it. It was just another event. George May’s business was something else. I don’t know why he put it on.”
The man Burke refers to is George Storr May, who was responsible for the audacious effort at establishing an annual world championship for golf. Although he ultimately failed, in the process May introduced golf as a spectator sport for the masses, and was responsible for innovations to tournament golf long taken for granted.
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