The King is dead – Long live the king!
To kill Tiger Woods off may be premature as it may be to crown Rory McElroy as the new king. That, however, is what the golf jocks are determined to do and, after all, drumming up the excitement that follows this theory is what being a jock is all about. As they used to say, when it mattered, that’s what sells newspapers.
Tiger Woods is 38 years of age – Rory McElroy is only 25. One may have to have some things left to prove – the other certainly has.
I have followed the game of golf almost as a religion since I was a child. I played very low handicap in golf in my younger days and have always had the game deeply embedded in my soul. I have been privileged to play many of the great British courses that reek of history. I have watched almost all the great ones come and go and have read voraciously on the subject. In fact, golf, like baseball and cricket, is rather a culture than merely a game. It has developed about it a literature of its own and the very best writers in our language have tackled it.
I have no doubt that Tiger Woods’s best days are behind him. Part of that may have been due to him starting so young in life and having simply exhausted himself. On top of that, he had that swath of self-inflicted scandals and, I think more importantly, has been plagued with serious injuries. At 38, although he is in superb condition, he is old for a golfer.
Rory McElroy is a true sensation. He has many years to go but at this stage one has to conclude that they will likely be brilliant.
This sort of discussion always raises the question as to who was the best of all time.
In order to deal with that question, there must be some ground rules. The first of those rules to me, is that you can only be the best of your own time. This applies to all endeavours. Things change, conditions change, new techniques arrive, new equipment is developed and so on, making it unfair and unrealistic to assume that a player in one era would be just as good in another era. In fact he might even be better.
The second rule that I apply is that the player must have made a difference. There have been a plethora of first-class golfers on the scene since I first began to notice which was back just after the days of Bobby Jones. Not all of them, not even, for example, Sam Snead, made a difference.
Let me, therefore, give you my notions of the greats of all time who not only were superb players but did in fact make substantial and long-term changes to the game itself.
There are golfers of antiquity which I’m not going to mention but nevertheless made the game what it was.
My list Is a chronological one.
The first giant I’m going to deal with was Bobby Jones. He was the first to develop the modern golf swing as we now know it. He was the first to think about and write about the golf swing itself and was the first great international teacher.
Bobby Jones played in the era of the amateur. His record cannot be compared to today if only because in his time both the US Amateur and British Amateur were considered major tournaments. There was no Masters – Bobby Jones invented that after he retired at the ripe old age of 28. He could not, being an amateur, play in the PGA.
Jones, of all things, established the game of golf as an intercontinental game and was its first superstar.
My second great star was Ben Hogan. Hogan, like a number of his contemporaries, lost a lot of playing time to World War II. He came along at a time when professional golf was nothing nearly as rewarding as it is today.
We all know about Hogan’s inspiring recovery from a terrible traffic accident and his amazing record thereafter. There is no doubt that on his record alone, Ben Hogan was a great golfer.
What distinguishes him from others of his era and sets him apart for all time was that he was the first to scientifically analyze the golf swing and establish a system which is taught to this day. Tiger Woods was taught the Hogan system.
Hogan’s famous book, Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, is still the Bible of teaching for those highly paid teachers that make a lot of money coaching the big stars on the tour today. It is still widely available.
Tommy Bolt, a former US Open champion, was once asked who was better – Hogan or Nicklaus. Tommy replied, “I have many times seen Nicklaus standing on the practice fairway watching Hogan swing – I have never seen Hogan on the practice fairway watching Nicklaus swing.”
That story may well be, as Bolt’s often are, apocryphal, but like so many apocryphal stories it likely contains within it a germ of truth. Until he died, Hogan had still had people come just to watch him practice – even when he was an old man.
The third of the all-time greats is Jack Nicklaus.
Although it started with Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus was the first TV star. Palmer, the great hero when Jack came along, all but folded when Jack started to play. Moreover Palmer, for all his lovability, charm, charisma and influence on the game, never won a PGA championship. To qualify on my list, one had to win all the majors available at that time.
Nicklaus was the first modern, TV superstar. He didn’t bring any particular new technique to the game – he brought brilliant performance. He stood head and shoulders above all his competitors for an extraordinarily long time. He and Arnold Palmer did a great deal to restore the proper and ancient lustre to the British Open. In that regard one must also add the name of another great golfer of that era, Gary Player.
This brings us to Tiger Woods. No one who has watched his career can fail to be truly amazed what it was that man accomplished starting at such an early age. By the time he had played or year or two on the professional tour, they started to “Tiger proof” the courses because he was so long and so dominating. He brought the whole question of physical conditioning to the game. The overweight professional, lolling along the fairway and winning money, virtually disappeared from sight. It was not long before nearly all top players had personal trainers. Golf as a whole made a giant step forward.
Tiger Woods dominated the profession as no other has done. He literally had fellow competitors afraid of him. He had them spooked. I well remember watching a Masters when Phil Mickelson, in second place, kept looking around and asking “how is Tiger doing”. That was the question that always prevailed on the lips of his fellow competitors – how is Tiger doing?
There is no doubt that not even Nicklaus dominated the game of golf as Tiger Woods has done.
The question, of course, is whether or not Tiger Woods is now finished. I don’t think so but he’ll never be back to dominate as he did. If he gets his health back he has another five or six years where he can win tournaments including majors.
What Nicklaus and Woods have done is hugely increase the strength of golf outside of the United States. This really started when Arnold Palmer played the British Open in 1962 followed by Nicklaus. Back in 1948 when Sam Snead won the British Open it was quite exceptional that a top-notch American would play in “the Open”.
In 1953, Ben Hogan, having been goaded that he could never consider himself a great player unless he won the “Open”, played at Carnoustie and won. That was his one and only appearance. Now, thanks largely to Palmer and Nicklaus, mainly the latter, it’s unthinkable that a top-notch professional would not play the British Open. One can always argue these things, but many now think that the “Open’s” prestige amongst the four majors is now number one.
The play in Europe, South America, and Asia has now become a world-class. In my early days, it was a rare thing to hear of any non-American player doing very much of anything. When Peter Thompson, an Australian, won six British Opens, one said “so what” – who else was there?
(Tom Watson, a honourable mention, was and is a super golfer whose bad luck it was to play during the Jack Nicholas era.)
There is my list – Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
Will the next one be Rory McElroy?
There is a very good chance of that happening.
What is certain, however, is that someone else will come along. They always do.
From what I can see so far, McElroy is well-placed to be the dominant figure. Whether or not he simply dominates golf but also adds his own special imprint remains to be seen. A whole lot of things, good and bad, can happen to a golfer along the way no matter how good he is.
In any event, it is a wonderful game, the only one where the referee is the player himself.
I think the game of golf is in very good hands indeed.