I started playing in the Nicklaus era and was often inclined to argue in his favour considering his incredible record, especially in the Majors. My father took up the game when Ben Hogan was in his prime. He told me about watching Hogan negotiate his way around Augusta National in the Masters tournament and how amazing his shots were A good friend of mine thinks Arnie was the best he's ever seen.
One day, we may see Jordan Spieth, or Justin Thomas throwing their hat in the ring as one of the greatest of all time. But, if that happens, it won't be Jordan, or Justin, arguing their case. Their fans will be doing it.
Another golfer who deserves to be part of the discussion when it comes to the greatest of all time is my golfing hero, Bobby Jones. Bobby wrote about this tendency for fans to view the players of their era as the greatest in his book, Golf is my Game. He wrote:
"The one question put to me most often is: Were the golfers of my day as good as those of the present time?
There can be no question more impossible to answer. Yet if golfers insist upon speculation on this topic, there is no reason why they should not have the privilege. And since it seems to command so much interest, perhaps I may join in the discussion.
In 1927, when I won the British Open at St. Andrews, one of the old-time professionals, described as 'the grand old man of Scottish golf', was quoted in the newspaper as follows:
'I knew and played with Tom Morris, and he was every bit as good as Jones. Young Tom had to
play with a gutty ball, and you could not make a mistake and get away with it. St. Andrews then
had whins up to your head and the fairways were half the width that they are now. This rubber-
cored ball we have now only requires a tap and it runs a mile.'
So you see, the controversy is not new. Young Tom had died some thirty years before I was born. Yet there is, of course, much substance in the above quotation; that is, if one must pursue the controversy..."
When Bobby wrote this, Ben Hogan was the guy hailed as the new great champion of his day. And comparisons were being made between Jones and Hogan. Hogan said to Jones, when there was some controversy about this in the media and Bobby had assured him that he had not tried to project himself into this controversy, "I have always felt and said that a man who can be a champion in one era could be a champion in any other era because he has what it takes to reach the top."
About that comment from Ben Hogan, Bobby went on to write:
"That was good enough for me, so we left it there. I think we must agree that all a man can do is beat the people who are around at the same time he is. He cannot win from those who came before any more than he can from those who may come afterwards. It is grossly unfair to anyone who takes pride in the record he is able to compile that he must see it compared to those of other players who have been competing against entirely different people under wholly different conditions."
That sounds pretty good to me. But just don't forget Byron Nelson if you want to talk about the greatest players of all time. I bet eleven wins in a row and eighteen in a season won't ever be accomplished again. But then, someone will argue, "that was in 1945." And so it goes.