Every age has its own heroes and iconic players. Most recently Tiger Woods has bestridden the golfing arena like some Goliath in Nike golf shoes and apparel. His many wins in major tournaments are fast becoming legendary. Time, of course, waits for no man or woman. Tiger’s victories are most likely, now, a thing of the past. The jury is still out on whether he will ever play golf again at the elite level after his serious car accident of 2020. Ben Hogan, another golfing legend from a previous age, recovered from a very serious car accident to go on and win major championships. Therefore, I will not prematurely count the great Tiger Woods out just yet. Tiger does sit up there in golf’s pantheon of golfing gods and, perhaps, he can be content to rest now. #golfinggods #GOAT #golfspantheon #golfers
Old Tom & Young Tom Morris Golfing Gods
Old Tom Morris and his son Young Tom are legends of the game of golf going back to its very earliest roots in Scotland. Winners of the Open 4 times each they were a golfing dynasty. Check out the movie Tommy’s Honour for a great insight into these two golfing gods in their heyday. Willie Park was another winner of the Open 4 times and a major figure in the game of golf in the nineteenth century.
The Caledonian Exodus to America
The seeds of golf were sown in America by a Scottish migration to the New World in the nineteenth century. Golf was established in Canada and the United States by wealthy industrialists, and they recruited Scottish golf professionals to run their courses and clubs. Famous names include Macdonald, Alex and Willie Smith, Tommy Armour, Willie Macfarlane, and Willie Anderson to name just a few of the prominent Scotsmen winning championships and influencing American golf. Course designers Donald Ross and Dr Alister Mackenzie must be mentioned as major figures in this Caledonian invasion and laying the foundation for the global rise of golf.
Golf’s Great Triumvirate
Going right back we had the Great Triumvirate, three British golfers who captured the imagination of the sporting public and sport’s writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor, and James Braid won 16 Open Championships between them over two decades. These capped and tweedy looking gentlemen were the golfing heroes of their day. Vardon managed to win the 1900 US Open as well. Harry Vardon is famous for his ‘Vardon grip’ with the overlapping little finger of his right hand atop the index finger of his left hand.
The golfing focus moved across the Atlantic to America after this and the twentieth century post WW1 saw the great Bobby Jones and the dashing Walter Hagen.
Jones founded the Masters at Augusta National, one of America’s and the world’s most loved major golf tournaments. There have been movies and books made and written about Bobby Jones. He is an icon of the game of golf shrouded in a mythic golden glow. The fact that Bobby retired early from his amateur golf career due to illness and a desire to focus on his family has only fanned the myth even more.
Walter Hagen was the best of the professionals, a dashing figure infamous for his partying and chauffeur driven late arrivals to important matches. Walter Hagen did much to overcome the social snobbery and class driven divide in golf during those times. Hagen won 11 majors to cement his place in golfing lore and legend. Gene Sarazen was another leading touring professional of this era. The 1920s and 1930s were dominated by these three golfers at all the major tournaments. Sarazen finished with 7 majors and is one of five players to have achieved a career Grand Slam.
The other four players are Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. The Grand Slam includes the Open, US Open, Masters, and US PGA Championships. Ben Hogan featured in an era, which included the 1940s and 1950s. He became the greatest golfer of his age winning 9 majors. Much was written about Hogan’s swing and ‘so-called’ secret. The legend of Ben Hogan is swathed in mist and magic made more mysterious over time. Byron Nelson was another hugely successful pro golfer who competed with Hogan and won 5 majors. Nelson famously won 11 consecutive golf tournaments in 1945. He retired officially from tournament golf at the age of 34. Sam Snead won 7 major championships and some 150+ titles around the world. Possessor of a silky smooth swing, this native of West Virginia was a Hill Billy hero par excellence.
The Big Three
Sports management was pumping golf up in the media and marketing these players as superstars. This was the era of leisure time in wealthy western nations like the US, Britain, and Australia. Golf was a big part of that recreational pursuit for men and women on weekends. Arnie (and his army) was a working class icon playing what had always seemed an elitist game and bringing the fans with him. Gary Player was a little chap with a ferocious competitive spirit winning big tournaments around the world. Jack Nicklaus was fast becoming the greatest player the world had ever seen. His record of 18 majors still stands today. These three golfers dominated proceedings through two decades of world class golf. Arnold Palmer was loved like no other sporting personality has ever been loved before and for so long right up until his dying day and beyond. Jack Nicklaus is still the focus for untold love and appreciation from golfing fans right around the globe. Gary Player remains another godfather of golf figure in the best sense of that term.
Special mention must be made of Tom Watson an 8 time major winner and rare golfing talent over many years. Tom had many great duels with Jack Nicklaus, of which Tom won several big ones. Lee Trevino, the mad Mexican, was a super golfer and winner of 6 majors. Lee broke the mould of successful golfer being as far removed from the Ivy League as possible.
Super Talented Women Golfers
Nancy Lopez was a towering figure in women’s golf in the 1970s. Pat Bradley won 6 majors and has been a hugely influential player in women’s golf. Kathy Whitworth has won more professional golf titles than most players of either sex. She has won 6 majors. Betsy King won 7 majors. Julie Inkster has won 7 majors too. Karrie Webb from Australia has won 7 majors and was the youngest player to win all 5 women’s major titles. Betsy Rawls won 8 majors. Annika Sorenstam with 10 majors is one of the greatest female golfers of all time. Louise Suggs won 11 majors. Mickey Wright has 13 majors to her credit. Patty Berg was another massively influential women’s golfer and won 15 majors. There are a host of super talented Korean female golfers winning big tournaments around the world, these include Jin Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park, Sei Young Kim, and Jeongeun Lee6. Japanese and Thai golfers are coming to the fore in world women’s golf right now too.
Norman & Faldo
Greg Norman was our first Australian golfing superstar celebrity figure. Sure, there had been earlier great Australian golfers like Walter Travis, Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, David Graham, Bruce Crampton, Jim Ferrier, and Jan Stephenson but none with the Norman charisma. Greg Norman became the number one golfer in the world for 331 weeks and won 2 majors. He lost plenty more in a variety of heartbreaking ways. Sir Nick Faldo shared the world stage in golfing terms around the same time as Norman. Faldo won 6 majors and bested Norman a number of times in important championships. Faldo had his own understated British charisma but was unloved by the sporting writers of his time. These two golfers were the greatest of their time over the latter part of the 1970s, the 1980s, and into the 1990s.
The name Seve Ballesteros brought a Spanish/European cultural expansion into the previously Anglo golfing world. Seve was a dashing Don Quixote but no fool, as he could make his golf ball do amazing things that other players could not do. His single minded golfing ambitions brought 5 major titles to his door. Remarkable shots played from car parks and shorelines brought golf fans to wide eyed shocked appreciation of his rare skills. Seve was a phenomenon and sits in the golfing fundament twinkling like the star he was. He died of brain cancer in 2011 at age 54. Special mention must include Nick Price a 3 time major winner from Zimbabwe. Vijay Singh won 3 majors and this Fijian Indian was a dominant player for a number of years winning right around the globe. Bernhard Langer won 2 majors.
Tiger burst onto the world golfing stage like a slickly rehearsed multinational corporate marketing campaign. Before one had blinked Nike had coughed up hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor this rare talent. Tiger was quickly winning major tournaments by record margins, and nobody had time to question how or why. The Tiger Woods phenomenon eclipsed all others that had come before him in the golfing realm. His ability with a golf club was so far ahead of anyone else that it had to be seen to be believed. Staid old golf was shaken to its core and was rapidly reinventing itself to cash in on the new interest from young people around the globe. Tiger was an Asian African American and he was AAA rolled gold for the game of golf and its multitude of sponsors. Golf had thrown off centuries of class and racial discrimination in an instant to move into the twenty first century. Old white guys may still dominate the recreational playing demographic in places like Australia, the US, and the UK but change was afoot. New territories were expanding in Asia and Europe, where golf had been on a very slow burn. Tiger Woods has won 15 majors in a raft of exciting ways to boost the game of golf right around the planet.
Phil Mickelson deserves special mention, as his career stretches from the end of the Norman years through Tiger’s dominance, and he has recently become the oldest winner of a major in golf history. Phil has won 6 majors. Mickelson has surprised many pundits with his rare talent and longevity at the top of golf.
Other special mentions must be made of Ernie Els, Davis Love the Third, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, and Laura Davies.
Rory McIlroy a northern Irish wunderkind jumped into world golfing consciousness and become the youngest player to earn $10 million in career earnings in 2012. Rory has won 4 majors, and these were won before the age of 25. Rory is a much loved figure in the game of golf and there are great hopes he will continue to achieve greatness going forward.
Jordan Spieth is a young American, who has also achieved remarkable results very early on in his career. Jordan has won 3 majors.
Dustin Johnson has won 2 majors and been world number one. The lanky American is a prodigious talent.
Brooks Koepka has won 4 majors and remains a fierce competitor in the major championships.
Justin Thomas is a major winner and super talent playing golf right now.
Bryson DeChambeau is a major winner and hits the golf ball further than most in the current era.
Hideki Matsuyama is the first Japanese golfer to win the Masters.
Notable Aussies are Adam Scott who became the first Australian to win the Masters in 2013. Geoff Ogilvy won the US Open. Steve Elkington won the US PGA. Ian Baker Finch won the Open. Wayne Grady won the US PGA. Jason Day also won the US PGA.
These are the most notable in golf’s pantheon of golfing gods now and historically. One thing, however, is for sure, there will be a new crop coming along to break records. The game of golf is forever on the march in terms of longer drives, lower scores, and more people playing golf around the world. The great game of golf continues to cast its spell over human beings everywhere. That 5 iron played on the moon during the Apollo landing may only be the first of many shots played beyond the shores of Earth.
©Robert Hamilton at GolfDom