Is This Golf’s Golden Age?

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? Or better yet, how many tournaments did Tiger win last year? Rarely do we hear – did you have a good time out there today?

So, because of the power these magical numbers hold over all golf addicts – I will now use them to help answer a question. Is the golf played on Tour today the best ever?

To best answer this question, I am going to break tournament golf into eras. And from those eras, I will pick the top three players – and then use the top events of the day in helping prove an era’s place in history.

My first era is (Pre-World War II). The best players of this era were clearly Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Bobby Jones won 13 Major Championships in a seven-year stretch. Granted, six of those majors were amateur tournaments – but, back then, they were still the top events. His chief rival, Walter Hagen, won 11 Major Championships and 33 other PGA Tournaments. And lastly, Gene Sarazen won 7 Major Championships and 32 other PGA Events. Okay, a few things to consider. First, the competition of the day was top heavy. There were a few great players and many average competitors. Still, you have to give Jones, Hagan and Sarazen credit. They won everything there was to win. And between the three of them — 31 Major Championships!

My next era is (World War II – Post-World War II). The best players of this era were clearly Byron Nelson , Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Byron Nelson won 5 Major Championships and 47 other PGA Tournaments in a very short career. He also had the magical year of 1945, winning 18 events, including 11 in a row. Ben Hogan won 9 Major Championships and 55 other PGA Tournaments in an injury shortened career. In addition, he is widely regarded as one of the best ball strikers in history. Sam Snead won 7 Major Championships and 75 other PGA Tournaments. Plus, he is still considered one of the most talented to ever play the game. Now the considerations. First, 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!

My next era is (The Baby Boomer). The best players of this era were clearly Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Jack Nicklaus won 20 Major Championships (18 professional and 2 amateur) and 55 other PGA Tournaments. He is generally considered the greatest golfer in history. Arnold Palmer won 7 Major Championships and 55 other PGA Tournaments. 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!

My next era is (The Late 70’s – Early 90’s). The best players of this era were Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. I cannot say they were clearly the best – as it pains me to leave Greg Norman off the list. But, the truth is, these players won more important tournaments than anyone else during this time. Tom Watson won 8 Major Championships and 31 other PGA Tournaments. For an eight-year stretch, from 75-83, Watson was simply brilliant. Sadly however, he lost his putting in his early 30’s and was never quite the same force again. Seve Ballesteros was a force of nature in the late 70’s and early 80’s, winning 5 Major Championships and over 80 other events. Like Watson however, Seve’s star shined briefly and his best golf was behind him by age 32. Nick Faldo won 6 Major Championships and 40 other events. Nick was the game’s best strategist during this era and also one of its finest pressure players. As an argument for this era, the overall competition to date – top to bottom – was strongest during this time. Between Watson, Ballesteros and Faldo – a total of 19 Major Championships and over 150 other events. Still, I would say this was more of a “what could have been” era, with Watson and Ballesteros all but done with their best games by age 32.

This brings us to the modern era (The mid 90’s till present or simply The Tiger Era). Other than Tiger Woods, it’s hard to say what other two players make up this era’s threesome. 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. It’s tough to say who will stand by Tiger’s side when all is said and done – but it will be interesting to see.

So, what do you think? Does the incomparable Tiger Woods, along with two other great players, make today’s era the most dominant? Or do the incredible records of the past — even with weaker competition – trump the great Tiger Woods?

I for one vote for the “Baby Boomer” era. After all, it’s tough to argue with the “Big Three” of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.

7 Responses to “Is This Golf’s Golden Age?”

  1. Wichita Sam says:

    Whoa There!

    I was pretty much on board with this writer until he got to the critique of the “Modern Era”. Regarding Phil (the Thrill) Mickelson’s position as #2 in the era, “But with his poor international record – Phil isn’t a lock”. What!!??? International wins will become a condition for golfing greatness when the world’s best players stop coming to the USA to play against the best players, on the best courses, in the best tourneyments. How can not doing well on raw courses, in miserable conditions on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th best circuits in anyway diminish such a powerful record on the PGA Tour? Any of the other (international) players mentioned would trade records with Phil in a heartbeat and be thrilled. Plus, I would guess that there is still more to come, much more. Errr, I take back that 2nd best circuit crack, since that would obviously be the Nationwide Tour. (Proof? How many first time winners on the PGA Tour this year were Nation Wide Tour alumni and how many were former Euro, Austrasian “grads”.). I say the Phil is a lock for the bridesmaid of this era and probably ViJay is the “show” horse.

    I really do love our international friends. There are many, many great golfers among them. But to knock Phil’s record because he hasn’t spend much time or effort to prepare a game suited for international play is just…well…WRONG!

    Fairways and Greens,

    Wichita Sam

  2. Jim M says:


    I read Mr. Beardsley’s article, and the question posed is a difficult one to answer.

    Perhaps golf’s ‘Golden Era’ has yet to appear if indeed one can even define what that would encompass. From the groupings presented for consideration I’d be inclined to suggest that the Bay Boomer era comes closer than the others to fitting the Golden Era title.

    My rationale for that conclusion is based on two factors … the size and skill level of the fields, and the fact that it was, in my opinion, the period that jump-started such a tremendous growth of the game and equipment development around the world.

    Yet equipment improvements continue as does the skill level of the fields, so we still may not have experienced golf’s Golden Era depending on how one chooses to define it. Perhaps a better measurement would be the overall quality of the game over a typical 72-hole tournament … and I see that as not yet having ‘peaked’.

    Much can be said in credit to the game’s earlier players considering the equipment they had to play with and the venues they played on. But unlike today’s tournaments, I doubt that the frequent winners of old faced such a high percentage of competitors capable of winning any given tournament.

    No, the question posed is not an easy one to answer qualitatively.

    Jim M

  3. David Cook says:

    The Golden Era has to be the time of Nicklaus, Player, Palmer and Watson. These were the days when the top players had ‘time for the fans’ Today’s top players, Ernie Els excepted, are more interested in the $$$$ than the fans that make these prizes possible.

  4. Ted Exley says:

    For me, the best time in Golf was ‘The Baby Boomers’ they had the greatest effect of all previous golfers. Not only did they do things that had never been done before, but they seemed to enjoy it all and they smiled a lot. You rarely see the current crop doing that. If you met them at a tournament, you could speak to them. They did not have bodyguards, like today.

    I am not quite sure whether I would wish T.W. to injure himself, but the current position would be a whole lot better without him, more level…and they would not be playing for as much cash as they are with him. I feel that the top 50 golfers have become a little greedy and they can now pick and choose which comps to play. Fancy TW missing the ‘Nelson Classic’. P.M. also misses a few that he shouldn’t…they all have too much money to care

    I am pleased that a lot of first time winners are showing up and taking the honours pretty often. I hope that they keep it up and cut out the top 10, just to even things up a little.

  5. Mike Day says:

    I would have to go with the baby-boomer era, and not just because I am a product of that era. It saw the further integration of the sport, though there was already some hispanic influence, with Chi Chi Rodriquez, etc. Lee Trevino should get a nod for that group, as well, since he was Nicklaus’s chief challenger during a stretch. There was a lot of colorful style, with the Doug Sanders influence. That waned some when everyone seemed to be a Nicklaus-wannabe-look-alike for a while. Also, there was the Amana hat group, with a lot of seemingly semi-indistinguishable also-rans. I did love seeing the varying styles of play, with those home-spun swings that no one would teach today.

    Tiger may be better than them all, but it is debatable, since so much of the game is played within that 5 inch space between the ears, and I don’t know how he would have held up against Jack in his prime, or against Trevino, the way he could get into one’s head when paired with them.

  6. Rick Zienowicz says:

    Imagine Jack Niclaus hitting a Pro-V1X with a 460cc Titanium driver. They were hitting persimmon woods and he was getting up to 300 yds and more at times. Jack’s iron play combined with the equipment improvements of today despite course length increases could have easily boosted his tournament and major records. He was the longest in his day with tiny faced wood drivers. Even Tiger’s three wood today has a larger and more responsive face than those historic “real” woods. The fact that he came back in 86 and won the Masters for the sixth time againgst the Watson and Norman era players says it all. We all agree that Tiger rules more decidely than any one in the history of the game but the big three were more consistent tournament performers than any of Tiger’s current day rivals in Jack’s day.

  7. Greg Miller says:

    i think the baby boomers…jack and his group was when golf was thrust into the forefront and they helped the major push of why these guys get paid the kind of $$$$ now. Another example……The Byron Nelson this year…i live here and I am sorry that a tribute to a great man and Golfer is not honored by players like Tiger…… much as I like Tiger, just seems that he owes golf and Byron to at least show for the 1st year without Byron there….at least for his memory….. I kinda hope Tiger slips on a spilled Margarita on his huge Yacht that he is able to afford because of the Great Ones before him and injures himself enough to not play for a year (I know that sounds bad)… he seems selfish.

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