The Best Players
As much as golf should be about a peaceful walk and having a "one with nature" experience - it usually comes down to numbers. Numbers like handicap or score. We've all heard questions such as - what did you make on that hole? Or, what did you shoot? Or, how many strokes will you give me? Rarely do we hear - did you have a good time out there today?
To arrive at golf's present requires a stroll through its past, a walk to remember just how closely linked the game's eras and stars are. The great historic figures -- Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Sam Snead among them -- are a part of a bygone era. The Depression and World War II years, are some of the bleakest in golf history. This was the era when golf's democratization began. Works Progress Administration projects helped spread the game westward, and women's participation rates grew to 25%, about where they are today.
The best players of the pre-World War II era were Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Okay, there are a few things to consider. The competition of the day was top heavy. There were a few great players and many average competitors. They won everything there was to win. Between the three of them - they won 31 Major Championships!
The best players of the World War II - post-World War II era were clearly Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. World War II kept a lot of top players from the tour. Because of this, Byron Nelson won many of his events when others were off to war. Still, you cannot argue with his stroke average or his record - it's phenomenal! Between Nelson, Hogan and Snead - a total of 21 Major Championships and over 175 other events - amazing! The post-World War II years can be called the "Comeback Age," in part because of the extraordinary recoveries made by Mr. Hogan, after a nearly fatal auto-bus accident, and by Ms. Zaharias, who won the 1954 U.S. Women's Open while still fighting colon cancer (and wearing a colostomy bag). Their stories hit a nerve with the public because the nation and its soldiers, too, were recovering from wars.
The best players of the Baby Boomer era were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Palmer literally brought golf to the masses as its first television star. He was also, in his prime, one of the all-time great putters. Gary Player won 9 Major Championships and over 100 worldwide events. He was also one of the best bunker players in history - if not the greatest. Compared with the two previous eras, the "Baby Boomer" was by far the deepest as it relates to competition. Between Nicklaus, Palmer and Player - a total of 36 Major Championships and over 200 other events - a truly incredible record!
The best players between the late 70's and early 90's were Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. It pains me to not name Greg Norman. Top to bottom - the overall competition was strongest during this time. Between Watson, Ballesteros and Faldo - a total of 19 Major Championships and over 150 other events.
Other than Tiger Woods, it's hard to say what other players are the best of the modern era. Phil Mickelson seems a logical choice with 3 Major Championships and 30 PGA Tour wins. But with his poor international record - Phil isn't a lock. Ernie Els might be a good choice with 3 Major Championships and a number of wins around the world. However, Ernie's lack of winning the last few years makes him an iffy choice. How about Vijay Singh? Vijay has 3 Majors as well and a number of other wins. When it all shakes out, Vijay might just be this era's second best player. Or, what about Retief Goosen? Retief has 2 Majors and many worldwide wins.
Lee Trevino has never gotten the credit his record deserves because of his ungraceful swing and his standup comic's chattiness, which often seemed staged, and because he was an "ethnic" from the other side of the golf establishment. When golf eras are enumerated, we hear of Hagen, Sarazen and Jones, Hogan, Nelson and Snead, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, Watson, Miller and Norman, Woods, Mickelson, and Duval. Trevino is usually offered only as an afterthought, which should hardly be the case for someone who won 6 major championships and more than 50 tournaments on the PGA and Senior PGA tours and who the real experts acknowledge was one of the best ball strikers and shot makers the game ever had.
Walter Hagen is known as the first true pro golfer, appearing in over 2,500 events, and was possibly the greatest ever match player as he once won 22 straight 36-hole matches in the PGA. He was a real show man with a remarkable ability to recover from poor shots with magnificent ones. "The Haig" captained the Ryder Cup team in six of the first seven Ryder Cups.
Gary Player is the most successful non-American golfer in history and paved the way for today's top South African golfers. He won nine majors and is one of five golfers to win all four. He has a remarkable record of winning at least one sanctioned international tournament in every year from 1955 to 1982, which is 10 years longer than anyone else has ever managed. He won the World Match Play title five times, the Australian Open seven times, the South African Open 13 times and in winning the 1974 Brazilian Open, he shot the only 59 ever in a national open.
Tom Watson was the King of the British Open with five victories between 1975 and 1983. He won eight majors overall and was Nicklaus' rival in the latter part of the Golden Bear's career. He won 39 events on the PGA Tour, including two Masters and a US Open, and from 1977 won six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards and led the money list five times. Tom Watson started playing golf at age six in 1955 when his father, Ray, a scratch handicap, put a cut-down, hickory-shafted 5-iron in his hands. After four years attending Stanford University, he turned pro in 1971 and got his first PGA Tour win at the 1974 Western Open. He had his breakout year in 1977 when he won the Masters and the first of his five Open Championships. Winning a second Green Jacket in 1981 and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach the following year.
Byron Nelson is remembered for having the best year in golf in 1945 with a streak of 11 victories in a row in a year when he won 18 tournaments and had seven second-placings in 30 starts. Also had 19 consecutive rounds under 70 with a scoring average of 68.33 for the season. He won five major championships through his career and was so machine-like in his approach to golf that the USGA named its mechanical club and ball-testing device the "Iron Byron".
Sam Snead holds the record for most PGA tournaments won with a grand total of 82 in 135 victories around the world in his long career. His last victory in 1965 made him the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event when he won the Greater Greensboro Open aged 52 years and 10 months. He won seven majors between 1942 and 1954 but famously threw away his best chance to win the US Open in 1939 when he led for 71 holes before he took an eight on the last.
Ben Hogan during a playing career that saw its first win in 1938 and last victory the 1959 Colonial, Hogan fought back from two major disruptions - service in World War II and a near-fatal head-on accident in 1949. He won nine majors, six after the accident, and is one of only four men to win all four majors at least once. In 1953 he won the Masters, US Open and British Open in one season. He was the PGA Tour's leading money winner from 1940-42 and in 1946 and 1948.
Robert "Bobby" Jones was certainly the greatest amateur golfer in history and could have been the greatest professional golfer but he never turned pro and retired at just 28-years of age. He never played competitive golf for more than three months in a year but when he did play he was remarkable. He played the US Open 11 times and on eight occasions he finished either first or second with only one finish outside the top 10. He won 13 majors in eight years, four of those the US Amateurs. In 1930 he won what was then the Grand Slam - the British and US Amateur and Open Championships - and retired after that year to practice law. His lasting legacy is the Augusta golf course that he helped design, which is the permanent home of the Masters.
Arnold Palmer was one of the most popular players with a fanatical group of supporters known as Arnie's Army. He won the Masters four times from 1958 to 1964, the 1960 US Open and consecutive British Opens in 1961 and 1962. Arnie won the US Amateur Championship in 1954 and turned pro a few months later and his first PGA Tour win came at the 1955 Canadian Open. He was the first golfer to earn one million dollars on the PGA Tour and between 1955 and 1973 he won 62 PGA tour events. He won 29 of those titles in a hot four-year spell from 1960-63 with his greatest year of golf in 1960 when he won eight events.
Jack Nicklaus (The Golden Bear) dominated a long era of golf from the 60s through to the 80s and played his final competitive round at the British Open. Nicklaus was an outstanding champion who, after winning the US Amateur twice, won an amazing 18 majors - six Masters, four US Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships. He completed three full cycles of the grand slam. He was the youngest Masters champion when he won it in 1963 and 23 years later became the oldest winner in 1986. Between 1962 and 1986 Nicklaus won 70 events on the PGA tour, a record bettered only by Sam Snead.
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