By: Dave Hill WGCA contributing writer
So who is the best player of all time? Yes I realize comparing players from different eras is next to impossible if not frowned upon but in light of Tiger turning 40 it would be an interesting exercise to compare his record with those of past greats.
It would be wise to start with a list of my top players from youngest to oldest: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon.
HOW DO WE MEASURE?
Some say Tiger is the most talented to ever play the game however this is an unfair statement as no one alive today had the opportunity to witness Vardon, Hagen or Jones and those who remember watching Hogan, Snead and Nelson in their primes were too young at the time to offer an expert opinion today. Many who did witness these players in their primes were not alive to witness Tiger. Therefore the only effective way to compare is winning % and by the numbers or is it?
FACTS TO CONSIDER
- Some players were more natural than others (Hagen,Vardon, Nelson, Snead vs Hogan).
- Some were coached from a young age and others not (Bobby Jones, Jack & Tiger vs Hagen, Nelson, Snead & Hogan).
- Some players competed in 4 majors per year (Jones,Nicklaus & Tiger) and others only 2 to 3 (All professional players pre Nicklaus) due to scheduling conflicts or inconvenience of travel.
- Some players have had career interruptions due to injury (Tiger), illness (Vardon & Jones), WW1 or 2 (Jones, Hagen,Nelson, Snead, Hogan) or injury and WW2 combined (Hogan).
- Some had long careers (Vardon, Snead, Nicklaus) while other retired early for personal reason (Jones & Nelson).
- Some players went through equipment transitions (Vardon from the feathery to the Gutta Percha ball), (Nelson, Snead and Hogan from Hickory to steel shafts…major transition), (Tiger from shorter steel shafted to longer graphite shafted driver and fairway woods).
- Depth and quality of competition. Some players had stiffer competition than others (Vardon who was also part of the 1st great triumvirate), (Nelson, Snead and Hogan who were the 2nd great triumvirate) and (Nicklaus who was part of the 3rd great triumvirate and who took on many greats throughout 3 decades)
WINNING PERCENTAGE (Majors)
Harry Vardon (7 Major victories/Played 1 per year except in 1900/1913 & 1920 when he played 2)
- 21% (7 wins in 33 majors)
- 33% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 7 wins in 21 majors)
- 5% (Hottest major winning streak/5 wins in 9 majors)
- 20% (11 wins in 55 majors)
- 35% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 11 wins in 31 majors)
- 47% (Hottest major winning streak/7wins in 15 majors)
- 42% (13 wins in 31 majors) He played in Masters after these 31 majors and after he effectively retired from competitive golf
- 62% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 13 wins in 21 majors)
- 5% (Hottest major winning streak over a few years/10 wins in 16 majors)
- 6% (5 wins in 32 majors) He played past retirement but last tournament counted here is 1949 Masters
- 25% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 5 wins in 20 majors)
- 33% (Hottest major winning streak/4 wins in 12 majors)
- 12% (7 wins in 60 majors) Stopped when Snead was 47yrs old
- 26% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 7 wins in 27 majors)
- 40% (Hottest major winning streak/4 wins in 10 majors)
- 20% (9 wins in 44 majors)Stopped when Hogan was 47yrs old
- 56% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 9 wins in 16 majors)
- 73% (Hottest major winning streak/8 wins in 11 majors)
- 17% (18 wins in 108 majors) 1960-1987 however he’s 25% with 14 wins in 55 majors (1962-75)
- 5% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 18 wins in 97 majors)
- 44% (Hottest major winning streak/4 wins in 8 majors) 36% (5 wins in 14 majors)
- 20% (14 wins in 70 majors) 1997- 2015
- 30% (% wins between 1st major win and last major win/ 14 wins in 46 majors)
- 83% (Hottest major winning streak/5 wins in 6 majors) 64% (7 wins in 11 majors)
MOST VICTORIES (From this list)
- Sam Snead – 82 (30 years)
- Tiger Woods – 79 (18 years)
- Jack Nicklaus – 73 (25 years)
- Ben Hogan – 64 (22 years)
- Byron Nelson – 52
- Walter Hagen – 45
- Harry Vardon – 7 (The Open and US Open)
- Bobby Jones – 6 (Us Open and the Open)
Numbers alone can’t tell us who we believe the best player of all time is however they can help but only when we delve deeper. Take Bobby Jones for example. Yes he won 13 majors with a high winning % however 6 are amateur championships in which he did not compete against the best of the best of his era (Walter Hagen & Gene Sarazen) and there was little quality to his competition.
The same can be said for Vardon however we cannot deny these two great men’s raw talent as Jones played part time and Vardon was a true superstar of his era.
Byron Nelson retired from golf for a simpler way of life. He had amassed a small fortune for the day and hung it up early in 1946. Yes his winning % was quite respectable in majors however he amassed many of his wins in 1944/45. His arch rivals Snead and Hogan were enlisted for service during the war years while Nelson was not due to health reasons. This allowed the latter to amass victory after victory during 1944 and his record breaking year of 1945. It cannot be overstated that had he gone head to head against both Snead and Hogan during these years his win total would have been lower.
There is a strong argument for Sam Snead being regarded as the best ever based on his career longevity by winning in 5 different decades and obtaining 82 PGA Tour victories but his winning % in majors and not procuring the US Open unfortunately drops him down a notch.
3 GOLFERS REMAIN (Hogan, Nicklaus, Woods)
HOGAN IS THE BEST
Ben Hogan is the most curious case to examine for being placed on the pedestal as the best player to have ever played the game. It can be agreed his career was condensed. Yes there was the car accident in early 1949. Some say this made him a better player forcing him to work even harder in order to make it back to the game he so loved. I don’t buy this. His love for the game and work ethic were instilled prior to the accident and simply helped him recover so quickly. If anything the accident placed these elements into the limelight giving Hogan legendary and iconic status.
Some also say his swing changed for the better after the accident. Shorter and more controlled. This too is far from the truth. Hogan did not have a professional coach/teacher growing up and first developed his swing to hit it far in order to keep up and beat the older caddies as a means to get caddy loops and earn a dollar. His original swing was born of necessity for survival. He went on to say later in life he would have developed the swing he did 10 years earlier had he had the usage of a video camera. Lest we forget he along with other players of the era were transitioning from the long “handsy” swing of the hickory shaft to a more controlled swing of the steel shaft. Hogan had figured out his swing much earlier and consolidated it with a victory at the Hale America Open in 1942 (considered by many to be Hogan’s 1st US Open victory) and immediately after the war as the flood gates opened up with victories between 1946 -1948.
When we talk about a condensed career Hogan’s first years out on tour cannot be compared in today’s world. No coach, not a natural and many years of toiling until he “dug it out of the ground” and developed a swing he could rely on in the heat of battle. Then the war hit, then 3 years later a life threatening car accident shortening his career in essence for 5 more years of strong competitive golf. It is easy to surmise Hogan’s career lasted approximately 10 years in which some of those years contained a very limited playing schedule with only 2 to 3 majors played per year. Quite impressive and no one to date has played better in the majors in such a short period of time…not even Tiger.
Although Tiger won 4 majors in a row, Hogan did not compete in the PGA Championship in 1953 due to the stresses on his legs caused by the car accident as it was 36 holes per day (match play). He did lose in a playoff in the 54 Masters to Sam Snead which would have made it 4 in a row. Regardless he did win 8 out of 11 compared to Tiger’s streak of 7 of 11.
Jack’s record of 18 major victories at this juncture does not look like it will fall at least not by Tiger who remains with 14 and he did it in 46 attempts beating out Jack who was 14 for 55. However what stands out about Jack Nicklaus are the number of 2nd, 3rd and top 10 finishes in the majors.
Jack Nicklaus in the majors
1st – 18
2nd – 19
Top 5 – 56
Top 10 – 73
Cuts Made – 131
Total events – 164
Tiger Woods in the majors
1st – 14
2nd – 6
3rd – 4
Top 5 – 31
Top 10 – 38
Cuts made – 67
Total events – 76
Ben Hogan in the majors
1st – 9
2nd – 6
3rd – 2
Top 5 – 25
Top 10 – 40
Cuts made – 53
Total events – 58
If we delve even further into why I consider Hogan the best and only by a slim margin over Nicklaus I have to look at a few other factors. Nicklaus surpasses Hogan in majors due to the amount of victories 2nd and 3rd place finishes but again this number is skewed against Hogan as he was unable to compete in the British Open or in most years the PGA Championship. It is not however skewed against Tiger.
This then leads us to another vital aspect; Depth but more so, the quality of competition. The tour in Tiger’s era is/was very deep in talent however is it fair to say the quality of his competitors was lacking if compared to those of Nicklaus and Hogan? The fact both Hogan and Nicklaus were part of a “Great Triumvirate” is telling in its own right. Hogan had Snead, Nelson, Sarazen, Harmon, Demaret and later Palmer. Nicklaus took on all comers in three decades and many of his competitors are iconic names today; Palmer, Player, Trevino, Floyd, Watson etc. Tiger has had to compete in essence against Faldo and Norman during the twilight of their careers, Els and Mickelson. The edge here goes to Nicklaus with Hogan second.
Finally it is important to realize what a figure Hogan was and what he brought to the game. He was revered for his ball striking, course management, work ethic, devotion and passion for the game like no other. There has never been a player in the history of the game who has garnered the respect from his peers like Hogan. Tiger has stated only Hogan (and Moe Norman) has owned his swing. When Hogan was hitting balls, Nicklaus would stop and watch. Case closed in my opinion.