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So often, we sit around with a cold one on our buddy trips and compare notes on all kinds of golf topics. One that is sure to arise: What golfer was the best we have ever seen?
We break it down into component parts, analyzing who drove it best, putted best and so forth. Agreement is hard to reach and consensus is impossible with each of us having personal favorites. The following is my unscientific opinion gleaned after 60 years of watching the sport. It includes many personal biases that I have held these many years.
Driver: Jack Nicklaus revolutionized golf by being the father of the modern power game. Jack was simply way longer and straighter than his peers and it was a large part of his greatness. Tiger was certainly mega-long when he came out and his devotion to fitness sparked another leap forward in the game. His consistency waned as the years went on and it’s hard now not to call it a liability in his game.
I’ve always felt that if Sam Snead played with modern equipment, he might have been the tops. However, put to the choice of the best overall driver of the golf ball I have ever seen, I am going with Greg Norman. The Shark was a long as any and straighter than most. For consistency with the big dog over a period of years,Normanis my choice.
Long irons: Nicklaus is the easy choice here, epitomized by his famous 1-iron to the 17th atPebbleBeach in the Open, which hit the flagstick and sealed another major. You should play some of Jack’s early course designs, which are very playable for those who hit a high, cut 3-iron to a back flag. The great irony here is that Nicklaus may have retired the trophy because the long iron is disappearing from golf bags faster than you can say “2-hybrid.” Every pro carries one or two now and every amateur golfer should. That may be since, as the saying about lightning prevention goes, even God can’t hit a 1-iron.
Iron play: This is the realm of the so-called “ball-striker,” the pro who can make a 7-iron do everything but sing the National Anthem. It is hard to give credit to the modern player here because modern equipment, while improving accuracy and consistency, has limited shot-making. Whereas Trevino could hit a low cut, high draw, and every other manner of shot, Tiger hit it straight up into the clouds so it could land like a cotton ball with nearly perfect distance control.
Hogan has to get a call here, if for no other reason than his consistency was without peer. I also include Johnny Miller, who hit it in the sweet spot more often than any of them when he was at the top of his game. Sleeper pick would be Nick Price, a devoted student of the technical aspects of golf. I would love to have seen Tiger play with old-time equipment because his imagination and skill might have given us a standard nobody could surpass. It’s a tough call but I’m going with Trevino because … well, because.
Wedge play and short game: The finalists are Woods, Mickelson, Ballesteros, and Trevino. Some old-timers say Paul Runyan but I never saw him. The four finalists are geniuses with short clubs. Seve’s wedge play was lyrical, and Tiger’s short game has elements of genius. Trevino could make a golf do things that defy physics. But my choice is Mickelson, who almost goes out of his way to show there are infinite permutations of the same shot. Under pressure, I trust Lefty’s short more than any part of his game.
Sand play: Tiger is great but Gary Player was the best. More sand inSouth Africathan inSouthern California, I guess.
Creativity: Phil. Chi-chi. Trevino. My pal Dick Blakeslee tells me of a time he was at an exhibition during which Chi-Chi Rodriguez placed two balls on the ground and in rapid fire succession, hit a low burner with a slice with one ball and the same shot with a hook on the other ball. About 150 yards down range the paths of the two balls intersected and nearly struck each other in mid-flight. The crowd oohed and aahed at the precision of the shot, but Chi-Chi turned to the crowd, and in mock anger, lamented how he had missed. He placed two balls down again and executed the same pattern and 150 yards down range the two balls collided in mid-air. The crowd gasped. Dick swears the story is true. I don’t care. It’s great legend.
Putting: Well, we know it’s not Vijay Singh. But who is it? Brad Faxon had the purest stroke I’ve seen. They say Bobby Locke was fabulous and the first of the hook-spin putters.
Who has made more BIG putts than Tiger and Jack? Billy Casper was a great pop putter with that mallet he used. Loren Roberts was “the boss of the moss,” which is a pretty cool nickname, don’t ya think? But the best putter I ever saw was Ben Crenshaw, who has an almost Zen-like quality on the greens. I have tried to emulate that stroke all these many years and tried to envision myself as alter ego to Crenshaw when I have my Cameron in my hands. To little avail, I am afraid. By the way, if I had to pick someone to make a four foot side-hiller to save the human race from extinction, I would choose Jack. Or Rocky DelPriore. Or maybe Ram Crandall, Sr.
Charisma: Arnie. Everybody else is in second place. A distant second place. He ain’t the King for nothing. You know how many guys wish they were Arnold Palmer? The exact number is 3,576,987,922. You know how many guys wish they could hang around with Arnie for a few days? Same number.
Greatest all round golfer of all time: The argument rages on. Rory is going to be. Tiger could be. Hogan. Snead. Nelson. Player. Palmer. Jones. The bottom line for me is the number 18. As in majors. When somebody gets 19, it’ll be him. Until then, it’s Jack.
Jim O’Neill is a member at Great Neck CC.