I suspect most golfers, or golf fans, would have on their list of the greatest players ever in golf's modern era Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. I would probably add Byron Nelson to that group, if only because of his unbelievable 11 wins in a row, and 18 wins in one year. That has to be the greatest golf ever played in a year's span. Furthermore, I believe the records show that, when playing against Hogan and Snead, Nelson was most often the better man.
The fact that Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods were all from different eras, we will never have the luxury of seeing any of them go head to head. And, in the case of Hogan and Nelson, Hogan rose to dominance only after Nelson took a relatively early retirement. That, of course, means the debate as to who was the greatest player ever will continue forever. The argument can never really be settled.
What prompted me to write this was a piece Sam Adams just wrote in the blog, Essentially Golf, which made the point that, regardless of whether we ever see a Tiger resurgence or not, golf's future looks extremely bright. He also made the point that the golf we have witnessed from Jordan Spieth this year in the Majors, and in particular his dominant performance at the Masters, which tied Tiger's record score on a course that was tougher than the course Tiger played, puts Spieth's season firmly in the running for one of the greatest we've ever witnessed. From a scoring standpoint it was, in fact, the greatest.
So, we really need to give Spieth and some of these new men some respect. The numbers tell us that Tiger, even in his prime, would probably not have dominated in today's fields the way he did from '97 to 2008. He would no doubt have won his fair share, and we would likely still be talking about how great he was, but I'd be willing to bet that Spieth and McIlroy in particular would not have folded like cheap suits the way so many other top players did against Tiger in his prime.
The same argument could be made with respect to Nicklaus' generation when talking about Tiger. Nicklaus faced fields that might not have been as deep in terms of sheer numbers of good players. But Nicklaus certainly faced more great players while earning his 18 Majors and amassing his astounding record of top threes in the Majors than did Tiger. Think about who Nicklaus faced. He faced Palmer, Player, Casper, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, and Trevino, to name but a few. Most, if not all, of those men have significantly more impressive resumes than anyone Tiger had to face, other than possibly Mickelson. Okay, Big Ernie was no slouch, and Vijay was pretty amazing as well, but let's face it, Nicklaus faced some incredibly strong competition in terms of guys who didn't back down from anyone. And, I didn't even mention Raymond Floyd. Nicklaus faced some great players who wouldn't, and didn't, blink. They were hard men.
But then, so did Hogan--who played against Snead, Nelson, Demarat, and many others--face some hard, battle-tested men who were genuinely in the category of great players. Actually, so did Bobby Jones, who faced Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, to name but two. I think, in terms of facing champions, Tiger might have had the easiest run of all the great players in terms of having to deal with two or three world-class champions to stare right back at him at the Majors.
The reality is, however, as time goes on, the fields might get deeper, but like in every generation, the few truly great players find a way to rise to the top of the heap and make a special name for themselves. And, at the end of the day, when striving to be called a great player, all you can do, and all you should have to do, is beat the guys you play against.
Tiger was truly great. No one in their right mind would dare suggest otherwise. But, looking at the golf scene today, in terms of excitement; in terms of fields full of talented, fearless players; there is reason to believe that we are entering an era that just might someday be looked back upon as being a golden era--an era perhaps like the era of Hogan, Snead, and Nelson; or Nicklaus, Watson, and Trevino. An era of big-time players enjoying big-time rivalries.
Tiger never really had himself a rivalry, like Nicklaus, or Hogan. He often won with relative ease. He won fourteen of fourteen Majors where he had secured the third round lead. A mind-boggling achievement, but I think it's only fair to say that the excitement of those wins was somewhat diminished by their predictability and the relative ease with which Tiger won them. Yes, we were witness to brilliant golf, but there wasn't much drama. His wins were often secured with an atmosphere of inevitability. Once Tiger secured the lead in a Major, at least until a fellow named Y,E. Yang came along, Tiger knew, we knew, and, more-importantly, his opponents knew, that it was pretty much all over but the crying. Golf is much better for the fans when we are glued to our seats, holding our collective breath, as we watch to see who will win. We want to see great players. But, we want to see them truly tested. Nobody really likes a foregone conclusion, or a blowout.
With Spieth and McIlroy we just may finally get another great rivalry, supported by a large cast of superb players who will be there to steal the show if those two aren't at their best. Both Spieth and McIlroy have shown that they are capable of truly dominant performances like we saw from Tiger. Surely, sooner or later, we will see these two heavyweights face eachother in the last round of a Major. Now that is going to be a treat.
We may just be entering another golden era of golf. Golf doesn't look to be in much trouble at all, if this year is anything to go by. I would argue that it just doesn't get much better than this.