Are Today’s Pro Golfers the Best Ever? Maybe Not…

In this increasingly “yesterday-was-a-longtime- ago” world, there is a tendency for what is currently on the marquee to be judged as better than it is, if not the best that ever was. Golf is no exception.
Two years ago, a young colleague wrote after Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship that Lefty was the sixth best male golfer ever. Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player: I have Mickelson, whom I admire, outside the top 10 before considering anyone born after 1940.
The guys and gals playing for lots of money on perfect grass using clubs and balls invented by folks smart enough to be figuring out how someone can get to Mars instead of a par five in two are good. Given the favorable conditions of their era, they should be.
Men and women who competed at the elite level 30, 50, or 80 years ago were also good, more talented than is perceived by those seduced by the sizzle of the moment. In fact, given the equipment, course conditions, travel logistics, and relative lack of golf-specific knowledge in the roughly six-decade window of persimmon heads, steel shafts, wound balls, and other realities from 1930 to 1990, those players were better, tougher.
Not long before he died at 83 earlier this year, 51-time PGA Tour winner Billy Casper recalled a conversation with his wife, Shirley, who was aware of how much the golf lives of top players had evolved since Billy’s heyday. “She said to me, ‘How come you didn’t have a swing guru, a short-game coach, a trainer, a nutritionist?'” Casper said. “I said, ‘Honey, I guess we were just good in those days.'”
It is fact, not myopic nostalgia, how previous generations like Casper’s achieved what they did once they got their self-reliant selves to the course.
They used less forgiving clubs with heavier shafts and golf balls of far from uniform quality more subject to the wind. They did not have putters with jumbo heads built not to twist and grips made thick to quiet nervous fingers. They got more than an occasional poor lie in the fairway. When pitching or blasting to a tight flagstick, they summoned their creativity instead of reaching for a 60- or 64-degree wedge. Remember spike marks?
In the current tour climate, lots of photographs get tweeted of our stars straining under a barbell or at the hand of a personal trainer putting them through a workout fit for Parris Island. There is an inane notion that elite golfers have only recently become athletes.
Tell those who persevered successfully through many a 36-hole major-championship day—without handy water and breathable fabrics—they weren’t athletes. Convince Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, who drove the ball prodigiously and accurately with a clubhead about a third the size of what is used by today’s poster boy of far and sure, Rory McIlroy. Ask 82-time LPGA winner Mickey Wright how valuable it was to be able to separate herself from the competition with soaring 2-iron shots.
The influence of technology on how golf is played at the highest level—dumbing down demands and equalizing talent— has been going on for a long time. Al Geiberger experienced it during the final round of the 1976 Greater Greensboro Open. He held a one-stroke lead over Lee Trevino as they came to Sedgefield Country Club’s 16th hole, then a downhill, 217-yard par three guarded by a stream. It was cool, into a breeze.
The Spalding Top Flite, a revolutionary solid-core ball with a hard cover, had been introduced in 1971. There being no “one-ball condition” yet in effect, some pros carried one when they needed a long, low shot into the wind. “There was no way I could hit my 3-wood at that green in those conditions,” Geiberger said. “I reached into my bag and pulled out my Top Flite. We called them ‘Top-Rocks.’ I used a 2-iron and nailed a bullet down there close to the hole without having to do anything special.”
Geiberger made a birdie and won the GGO. In time, equipment manufacturers won the day, altering an equation that had held for decades. Golfers of the 21st century don’t play the same game, but regardless of their boo drives and bu bodies, different isn’t necessarily superior.

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