Great Golfers of the ’70s and Today: Who’s the Best?

Discussions and arguments centered on settling the “greatest of all time” are a favorite activity of fans in every sport, second only to playing or watching the sport itself. Golf is no exception. Such debates can never be finally settled because players from different eras can never compete directly while still in their prime.

However, one thing seems certain: those with the competitive drive and athletic skill to succeed in a sport would likely be champions in almost any era, because drive, confidence, and ability are the most important ingredients for a champion, anytime and anywhere. If you took Old Tom Morris out of the 1860s, when he was winning National Open Championships, and somehow transported him in time, with all his youth and vigor, to the twenty-first century, he would find a way to win tournaments.

Certainly, different eras create different types of champions. In the early 1960s, when I began touring, for example, there was no such thing as a Web.com qualifier, FedEx points, or their predecessor, the PGA Tour Qualifying School. Instead, players who lacked tour wins or major championship titles traveled from place to place to compete in the grueling exercise known as “Monday qualifying.” Such players, sometimes called “rabbits,” required extreme reserves of stamina and, often, the ability to survive on a shoestring while trying to score well enough to get into the tournament, with the possibility of winning some prize money. Players like Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Billy Casper, and Bruce Crampton, my friends and competitors, developed mental toughness and resiliency because of the grind they endured on their way to winning the championships for which they eventually became famous.

Others, like the great Jack Nicklaus, seem to have started at the top and managed to stay there. Nicklaus turned pro after winning back-to-back US Amateur Championships in 1959 and 1960 and making a hard run at Arnold Palmer in the 1960 US Open, losing to the dominant player of the day by only two strokes. His first win as a touring professional? Merely the 1962 US Open. With such credentials under his belt, the Golden Bear was never a rabbit. Though he primarily played only major tournaments, he still compiled an amazing record of 73 Tour victories, third on the all-time list behind Tiger Woods (80) and Sam Snead (82).

Still, none of this should diminish the respect accorded to today’s champions. Players like Jorden Spieth, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, and other young competitors demonstrate, week after week, the same championship mentality that drove the professional golfers of my day. Not only do these players possess the stamina, ambition, and athletic skills required, they also are fortunate enough to be beneficiaries of the many advances in technology, science, and human mechanics that have occurred during the six decades since I turned professional. The point is, the game of golf still requires its competitors to play the same courses, under the same conditions, using the same equipment. And, just as in my day, the champions are those who are best able to execute the required shot under the relentless pressure of tournament play. The audiences and the purses may be exponentially larger, but the winner must still outscore everyone else. That’s the way golf has always been.

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