Phil Mickelson and Other Major Champions Who Chose Not To Defend

Phil Mickelson, Major Champions, PGA Championship, (Photo by Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images).
Phil Mickelson, Major Champions, PGA Championship, (Photo by Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images). /

When Phil Mickelson last week declared his intent not to defend his PGA Championship at Southern Hills, he unwittingly performed one of the rarest feats in golf, and maybe in all of sport.

Phil Mickelson voluntarily opted not to defend a championship he was available and physically capable of defending.

Since the British Open was first contested in 1860, there have been 459 major professional golf tournaments played. Only 21 times has a reigning champion not been on hand to defend.

And the large majority of those 21 non-defenders were prevented either by incapacity, travel restrictions, or by their own retirement. Mickelson will become only the fourth major champion ever to elect not to defend a title for reasons of personal choice, and the first in a century.

For most of the game’s modern era, only one factor has prevented major champions from defending. That sole factor was an incapacity. That factor sidelined six of the eight reigning champions who did not defend since 1949.

The 1949 bus crash that nearly cost his life prevented Ben Hogan from defending both his PGA and U.S. Open titles that summer. In 1960, defending Masters champion Art Wall was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury. Payne Stewart, the 1999 U.S. Open champion, died in a plane crash that fall, and was memorialized when the 2000 U.S. Open was contested at Pebble Beach.

Tiger Woods lost his chance to defend his 2007 PGA title while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured leg. In 2015, Rory McIlroy was prevented from defending his PGA title by an injury.

World War II forced Sam Snead, who had won the most recent PGA two years earlier, to the sidelines in 1944. Snead was in uniform at the time.

Prior to World War II, the most common reason presenting champions from defending was water … as in the Atlantic Ocean. Walter Hagen in 1925, Bobby Jones in 1928, Denny Shute in 1935, Sam Snead in 1947, and Ben Hogan in 1954 all chose not to undertake the costly and time–consuming ocean crossing required to play in the event.

That factor also worked in reverse, preventing Britishers Harry Vardon and Ted Ray from defending their U.S. Open titles in 1901 and 1921.

Four majors lacked a defending champion due to their retirement. Bobby Jones’ decision to halt competitive play following his 1930 Grand Slam prevented him from defending either his U.S. or British Open titles in 1931. Three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton temporarily called it quits following his 1948 victory, and although Cotton did return five years later his absence left the 1949 Open without a defender.

And Jerome Travers, his era’s best amateur player, celebrated his victory at the 1915 U.S. Open by declaring his retirement from major competitive golf.

Oddly, one champion was prevented from defending by scheduling overlaps. In 1907, the U.S. and British Opens were both played on June 20 and 21. Alex Smith, the 1906 U.S. Open champion, opted to play in the British Open rather than defend his U.S. Open title. He tied for 25th at Hoylake.

That gets us down to the three champions who did what Phil Mickelson did, choosing not to play in an event for which they were active, healthy, and available.

Those three were:

  • Jamie Anderson, 1880 British Open. The 1877, 1878, and 1879 champion, Anderson blamed scheduling delays on the part of event organizers for his inability to compete for a fourth straight victory.
  • Bob Martin, 1886 British Open. In the absence of an obvious reason for why Martin did not defend, the most likely explanation involves previous commitments or injuries. Martin returned to finish second in 1887.
  • Walter Hagen, 1922 PGA. The 1921 champion declared himself unavailable for the 1922 event at Oakmont. Hagen cited previous exhibition commitments; in effect, he decided touring was more financially lucrative than competing. Hagen returned to finish second in 1923, then from 1924 through 1927 won four straight years.

Next. Ranking The Best PGA Championship Competitors Of All-Time. dark

Since Hagen in 1922, no defending champion other than Phil Mickelson who remained active, available, and healthy has opted not to play.