Image Courtesy: Steven Shircliff
In April 1997, Woods began a streak that took him directly to the top of the list. He dominated golf’s most famous and traditional event to the extent that the sport was changed forever. We all go back to the Master’s record 18 that Woods shot in his first Masters as a pro.
Let’s bring back the edges of his immeasurable 12-shot margin of victory. (Second-place finisher Tom Kite’s total of 282 would have been enough to win 17 Masters, but it was only 12 shots behind Tiger.)
Back to his mammoth drives turned par-5s into pitch-and-putts. Many people don’t remember from the 1997 Masters how badly Tiger started the event. Woods had a 40, leaving him at 4 over par. I guess the stars aligned and the golf gods smiled.
Over the next 63 holes, Woods swept through Augusta National like a tornado, playing the course and leaving behind the best players in the world. Unaffected by tele conditions, Tiger’s runaway has given golf its biggest conditional winner to date. In 1996, before Woods turned pro, conditions were 9.2 on Sunday. In 1997, when Woods won, that number jumped to 14.1.
Nicklaus brought out the greatness in his opponents – Palmer, Player, Watson, and Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game with his physical prowess and strength, mental toughness, constant excellence and genius for strategically tearing up golf courses around the world.
You know the litany of achievements. 18 major championships, more than Hogan and Palmer combined. An amazing 37 top twos in majors.
However, if winning is the standard for defining excellence, there is no better player in golf history than Sam Snead. Using a smooth, syrupy swing that felt as natural and regal as breathing, Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player – an astounding 82 PGA Tour titles and 135 to 165 victories around the world, depending on whom you ask. He won at age 52 in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in the event).
Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff victory over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA crowns and the British Open.
There were better players with decent swings. But there was never a more important golfer than King Arnold Palmer. He quadrupled purses, brought golf from country clubs to our living rooms, and amassed an army of devoted followers.
He won and lost more than any other athlete. From 1958 to 1968, Palmer ruled Augusta National among the azaleas and pines where Arnie’s army first assembled. Except for 1963, he competed in every master during that great stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once and finishing fourth twice.
Thoughtful, temperamental, and focused, Ben Hogan was not an attractive figure who collected millions to watch the game in the Arnold Palmer style. rather, he was all about golf shots.
Hawk continues to be golf’s best shotmaker of all time. Instead of relying on a momentarily technologically advanced suit, Hogan used an unfathomable ability to control his ball flight to win nine majors — and more likely than Jack Nicklaus. For Hogan “The Hawk” “Bantam Ben,” who was 5’7, 140 pounds at the top of his game, striking the ball well was more important than scoring.