Tiger Woods. The name is recognizable in an instant by nearly everyone on the planet, perhaps because it is surrounded by love, hate, controversy, and skepticism. Woods has had a very successful career as a professional golfer, and most argue that he is the best to ever play the game. He has won a total of 14 major championships, 79 career PGA Tour tournaments, and 12 international tournaments. An impressive résumé to say the least. Tiger asserted his dominance in the late 1990s and 2000s, but is it fair to claim he is better than all the golfers who also tore up their opponents in the 20th century? Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon and Jack Nicklaus were incredible players that also owned their eras of golf. In this post, I will answer why we cannot definitively call Tiger Woods the best golfer of all time, and why we can call him the best of an era.
Golf is a game that changes as new technology comes out to help players improve their game. New clubs are released every year that give the player more of an edge over their opponents outdated equipment. In other sports like professional baseball and basketball the equipment has remained relatively the same to how it was in the past. This is not the story with golf though. In the early 1900s players used handmade clubs with small, wooden headed drivers, hickory shafts, and a sweet spot the size of dime. Today golfers are using clubs with heads two times the size of the old wooden antiques, fiberglass shafts, and a sweet spot larger than the ball itself. Golf was a much harder game in the early 1900s. Also players wore dress jackets, button down shirts, and ties to play 18. These clothes are constricting and made it more difficult to swing than the loose fit polos and slacks golfers wear today. My point is that golf has changed so much over the decades that it is not fair to crown Tiger king when he never had to play in the same conditions as his predecessors. We cannot call anyone the best golfer of all time because of how drastically the variables of their success change from decade to decade.
I do not believe we can call Tiger Woods the best golfer of all time with 100% certainty because of the above argument. It may be a tough pill to swallow for some, but it is the way I see things. Since we cannot call Tiger the best of all time, I have decided to divide golf since 1896 into appropriate eras, and pencil in who I believe is the best golfer of that given timeframe. Each player over every timeframe holds records and has achievements that the others do not, and that is why I believe this an effective way of sorting the best of the best golfers.
The Vardon Era (1896-1921)
7 Major Championships / 42 Tournament Wins
The first era on the list was dominated by the man named Harry Vardon. Vardon is widely known for his ability to play links style golf courses and is credited with the creation of the “Vardon Grip”. The “Vardon Grip” is used by most professionals and amateur golfers today. He won the British Open a record 6 times, which still has not been topped to this day. Vardon was a fan favorite and revolutionized the game. He won the US Open one time, but only participated in the tournament three times. Vardon came in second the other two times he played in the US Open. He lost to Francis Ouimet in an 18 hole playoff in 1913. The story of this US open can be seen in the film The Greatest Game Ever Played.
The Jones Era (1922-1930)
13 Major Championships / 20 Tournament Wins
Robert Tyre Jones Jr. also known as Bobby Jones was an amazing golfer, but the most amazing thing about Bobby Jones is that he never earned a cent from tournament winnings. Jones remained an amateur his entire career and worked as a lawyer when he was not playing golf. Jones won 13 Majors in a 7 year time frame, and is the only player to ever complete the Grand Slam. The Grand Slam is winning all four major championships in the same calendar year. The majors that Jones won are not the same as the four major championships of today. The British Amateur and the US Amateur were considered major championships at this point in the timeframe. Jones retired after he won the Grand Slam in 1930 and went onto open the Augusta National Golf Club with Clifford Roberts. Jones is closely followed in this era by Walter Hagen who won 11 majors. Hagen was a competitor and close friend of Jones.
The Sarazen Era (1931-1935)
4 Major Championships / 7 Tournament wins
Gene Sarazen won a total of 7 major championships and 32 tournament wins, but the numbers above reflect the tournaments that he won during his era. Sarazen won the second ever Masters Tournament at Augusta National in 1935. It was in this tournament that he hit “The Shot Heard Around the World” and double-eagled the par five 15th hole at Augusta. A bridge was later built over the pond on that hole and named in his honor. On top of all this Sarazen also invented the modern sandwedge revolutionizing play from the sand trap.
The Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, & Sam Snead Era (1936-1954)
Combined 21 Major Championships / 177 Tournament Wins
This era may have three names in its name, but there is no denying that Ben Hogan is the best golfer of the three. He led the first big trio in golf, won 9 major championships, and has 55 other tournament wins. Snead won 75 tournaments and 7 majors, and Nelson has 5 majors and 47 other tournaments won. You may question why Hogan is the best when Snead won more tournaments. There are many reasons. One is that Hogan simply did not start in as many tournaments as Snead. Also many believe Hogan should be awarded a 10th major because of his win at the Hale America Open. This tournament was supposed to be a substitute for the US Open in 1942 because the US Open was cancelled by the USGA. Finally, Hogan could have completed the Grand Slam in 1953 but the dates of the PGA Championship and the British Open overlapped. He won the British Open and his 1953 season is known as the “Triple Crown of Golf”.
The Big 3 Era: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, & Gary Player (1955-1986)
Combined 34 Major Championships / 269 Tournament Wins
Though these three players had a staggering number of victories, there is no denying that Jack Nicklaus is the best player of the three. He holds the record for most majors won with 18. He is also the oldest player to win a major. He won the Masters at age 46 in 1986 to capture what would be his last major championship win. Palmer and Player were both magnificent players in their own right. Gary Player has won more tournaments worldwide than anyone, and the late Arnold Palmer changed the face of golf. Arnold brought so many fans to the game of golf. He always had time for his fans until the day he died. Palmer won 7 major titles and Player won 9. Lee Trevino and Tom Watson also competed within this time frame and were great competitors of the Big Three. Watson won 8 majors and Trevino won 6.
The Faldo Era (1987-1996)
6 Major Championships / 27 Tournament Wins
Sir Nick Faldo was a tremendous golfer from England. He won the British Open and the Masters both three times each. Faldo’s career overseas was more successful than his on American soil. His best known major championship is the 1996 Masters. In this tournament Greg Norman held the 54-hole lead but blew up on Sunday to shoot a 78. Faldo fired a flawless 67 and brought back his third green jacket to England. Faldo, like Arnold Palmer, was a man of the people. So much so that he was knighted by the queen of England. He now has a very successful career in broadcasting golf tournaments with CBS.
The Tiger Era (1997-2013)
14 Major Championships / 91 Tournament Wins
Here it is. Tiger’s era of golf. Tiger Woods completely owned this timeframe. If there was a tournament being played, Tiger was the favorite. Tiger had two down years in 2010 and 2011, but resurged in 2012 and 2013. Tiger won an impressive 4 Masters, 3 US Opens, 3 British Opens, and 4 PGA Championships. Tiger never completed the Grand Slam, but he completed the “Tiger Slam” as it is known today. He won the US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship in 2000. Then went onto win the Masters in 2001. Woods won all four major is a row, but since they were not all in the same calendar year it is not considered the Grand Slam. He also hit some of the most memorable shots that have ever been hit, and most of them were followed by his trademark fistpump. Tiger did not just play well in his era, he revolutionized the game of golf. His success led to more viewers of golf on TV and more fans coming out to watch the tournaments. Before Tiger, no tournaments had a payout of over 1 million dollars to the winner, but now just about every tournament does. Tiger truly was incredible, but his downfall has ultimately been the back issues that have plagued him over the past years. He just underwent his fourth back surgery on April 20th, 2017. Will this be the end of Tiger’s career? We will have to wait to find out.
Today’s Era (2014-?)
No player in the present era of golf has really stood out and been the best for a long period of time. McIlroy and Spieth have shown spurts of greatness, but they have not been able to sustain it day in and day out. Right now, Dustin Johnson is the best golfer on tour. He is ranked number one in the world , and his win at the 2016 US Open was his first major championship victory. He did not compete in this years Masters after suffering a back injury. Only time will tell who the next heavyweight of golf will be, but for right now in the present era there is no one man to beat.
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