PGA – RENEWED DEBATE: WHO’S ON MY MOUNT RUSHMORE OF GOLF

I’ve seen several theories as to which players should be on golfing’s version of an imaginary Mount Rushmore, but I’ve never found any that includes all four of the icons I’ve chosen.

But, my altar of golf is not based on who I think the Top 4 golfers are of all time, statistically speaking.

I constructed my imaginary shrine based on a similar credo as to how the real monument was created.

That is, Danish-American sculptor Guzon Borglum included the faces of George Washington to represent “Birth” of the US, Thomas Jefferson “Growth”, Abraham Lincoln “Preservation” and Theodore Roosevelt “Development”.

In the same fashion, the finalists for my Mount Rushmore of Golf are:  Walter Hagen (“Birth”), Arnold Palmer (“Growth”), Jack Nicklaus (“Preservation”), and Tiger Woods (“Development”).

Walter Hagen – “Birth”

The PGA of America was founded in 1916 during an era of considerable class distinction between the wealthy and lower classes.

This hierarchal disparity was reflected in the golfing world in that the amateur circuit was generally reserved for those wealthier players of the country club ilk considered “gentlemen”.

Meanwhile, tour professionals were typically working class former caddies who turned pro to earn income and thought of as nothing less than vagrants.

As a result, professional golfers were often shunned in society and treated unfairly.  They were denied access to the same country club locker rooms as the amateurs and even banned from using front entrances at tournament facilities.

With this lack of respect amongst their peers, pro golfers were paid meagerly and had to take second or third jobs as golf instructors or work in pro shops.

But Walter Hagen (1892-1969) helped to change that.

He paved the way for young men “to make their living not as golf professionals but as professional golfers”.

The son of a blacksmith, Hagen quit school after age 12 to become a caddy at a local golf course near his home in Rochester, NY.  He gained access to the course during off-peak times and gradually improved his skills enough to turn professional at age 19.

In 1913 at the US Open at Brookline, Hagen had immediate success, but felt the disdain by his peers higher in social status.

Tired of making low wages, he started playing exhibition events all across the US and the world and demanded large sums which eventually helped to boost prize money for Tour pros.

Luckily for Hagen, he exuded a tremendous charisma that struck a chord with audiences and became a large draw.  He was a pioneer in this area of captivating the fans which also helped him promote golf to the masses.

Hagen also helped to raise the social status of golf professionals by demanding equal treatment for both amateurs and pros.  And, he wasn’t afraid to pull extreme stunts to make his point.  For instance, Hagen once refused to enter a clubhouse to claim his prize because he had earlier been denied entrance.

On another occasion when Hagen was refused admittance to a clubhouse, he rented a Rolls-Royce (complete with a footman) and stepped out at the front entrance while sipping champagne.

Gene Sarazen, one of the 1920’s top players and Hagen’s former rival once said, “It was Walter who made professional golf what it is… [he] contributed more to golf than any player today or ever”.

Hagen even had a hand in the improvement of equipment when he worked with Wilson Sports which resulted in the world’s first matching set of iron clubs. The improved equipment expanded golf’s appeal, brought high-quality clubs within the price range of many more players, and raised the standard of play.

What made all of this possible was Hagen’s immense talent as a golfer.  He was particularly good in the areas of putting, making brilliant recoveries, and exuded confidence.

By the end of his career, he amassed 45 PGA Tour wins (30 more as a pro) and 11 majors (3rd best behind Nicklaus and Woods), plus he played hundreds of exhibition events.

Hagen would win the U.S. Open twice, the British Open 4 times and the PGA Championship 5 times.  His 5 PGA Champ titles are tied for most all-time with Nicklaus. Four of those victories came in a row, from 1924-27.  No other golfer has ever won more than two in a row.

Hagen is also considered by the World Golf Hall of Fame as the “greatest match player of all time”.  He captained the first seven American teams in the biennial matches between Europe & the US (which became the Ryder Cup) in 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935, 1937, and 1939.

Arnold Palmer – “Growth”

Arnold Palmer only had 62 PGA wins (good for 5th all time) and 7 major wins, but his influence on the game and today’s players cannot be understated.

In the 1950s, when golf’s popularity was on the rise, America needed a popular figure to take it into the next era.

Luckily, Arnold Palmer decided to turn professional while golf was being shown on television for the first time.  It was a match made in Heaven.

With his charming good looks, great smile and overall appeal, Palmer connected with American fans on a universal level unlike any other player in the history of golf and single-handedly commanded TV coverage of golf on the weekends.

“We loved him with a mythic American joy,” James Dodson, who wrote his biography, said. “He represented everything that is great about golf. The friendship, the fellowship, the laughter, the impossibility of golf, the sudden rapture moment that brings you back, a moment that you never forget, that’s Arnold Palmer in spades. He’s the defining figure in golf.”

His popularity widened the game’s appeal and he became golf’s first superstar.  He even attracted mobs of followers at each tournament nicknamed “Arnie’s Army.”

“Arnold’s legacy is that people followed him, people adored him,” Jack Nicklaus said. “He was probably the most popular person to ever play the game… [He] popularized the game… He gave it a shot in the arm when the game needed it…. Arnold is the reason golf enjoys the popularity it does today.”

While Palmer was so popular, he was also dominating events (won 4 green jackets 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964) & played with six Ryder Cup teams (captaining the 1975 team) which helped to create a legend.

Palmer’s greatest influence on the game, however, may have been his ability to capitalize on his fame and commercialize the sports marketing industry.

He became the first client of what would become the blockbuster sports agency IMG and as a result, appeared in commercials and advertisements with over 50 products and services while also branding his own image.

Even after his play on the greens declined, he was hawking products, investing in golf courses, co-founding the Golf Channel and creating an appeal for his brand that will last long after our lifetimes.

“He was the pioneer,” said Bob Williams, chief executive at Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing, which represents brands who hire celebrities for endorsements. “He was the first celebrity in the sports world to have a marketing agent.”

According to a New York Times article dated Sept 26, 2016: “Palmer earned an estimated $875 million through endorsements, appearances, licensing and golf course design. That places him behind only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in lifetime earnings for athlete-pitchmen.”

So with his power to attract millions of Americans to watch and play golf, “The King” made golf grow.

And, with his brilliant mind for business, Palmer paved the way for the modern sports star.

Jack Nicklaus – “Preservation”

Nicklaus is considered by many to be the greatest golfer of all time.

During his 25-year career, Nicklaus notched 73 PGA wins, good for 3rd most behind Snead (82) and Tiger Woods (79).  He won the U.S. Open 4 times, the British Open 3 times, the PGA Championship 5 times and the Masters 6 times, a tournament record.

But what Nicklaus will be most known for and the reason he is on my Mount Rushmore of golf is his record of majors wins (18).

No one will ever break that record.

If Tiger Woods couldn’t do it (14), no one else will.

That record will be preserved for all time.

Amazingly, Nicklaus admitted he could have done more if he didn’t balance out his playing time with his family (long-time wife Barbara and 5 kids), a very important part of his life in addition to golf.

He told Golf Digest in 2010: “If I were to look back on my work, I think I accomplished probably about 70 to 75 percent of what I could have. Maybe 60 percent. Somewhere in that area; two-thirds of what I could have accomplished.”

He’s probably right.  Nicklaus came in 2nd place in a major 19 times and finished in the top three 46 times in 164 starts.

“I went through a period from 1967 to 1970 where I was winning six or seven tournaments a year, but I wasn’t winning the majors,” Nicklaus said in 2006. “It really wasn’t a big deal to me until my father passed [in February 1970]. Then I realized I was not really working that hard at what I was doing. I passed a lot of good years there. If I knew that Tiger was coming along, I would have focused a lot earlier in my life. If Bobby Jones had won 20 majors, I would have focused a lot earlier on 20.”

Golf.com’s Gary Van Sickle theorized earlier this year that Nicklaus “wasn’t far from winning 28 major championships”.

Still, what Nicklaus accomplished over such a long period of time and well into his 40’s will likely go down as the best PGA career ever.

Tiger Woods – “Development”

Woods is neck and neck alongside Jack Nicklaus in the conversation of greatest all time.

His accomplishments on the PGA Tour are almost too massive to list, but some of the highlights so far:

  • 79 PGA Tour wins (2nd all time), 40 European Tour wins (3rd all time), and 14 major wins (2nd all time);
  • Won the Masters 4 times, US Open 3 times, The Open 3 times, and the PGA Championship 4 times;
  • Awarded the PGA Player of the Year a record 11 times;
  • Won the Vardon Trophy 9 times, Byron Nelson Award 9 times and was a 2 time FedEx Cup Champion;
  • World Number 1 for the most consecutive weeks and for the greatest total number of weeks for any golfer;
  • Lead the money list a record 10 different seasons;
  • The youngest player to achieve the Career Grand Slam and the youngest and fastest to win 50 tournaments on tour;
  • Only the 2nd golfer after Nicklaus to achieve the Grand Slam 3 times;
  • Won a record 18 World Golf Championships and won at least one of those events in each of the first 11 years after they began in 1999.

With all of that utter domination on the leaderboard, Woods energized younger generations of golfers to want to play.  Whatever he was doing, they wanted to do as well.

Additionally, Woods’ achievements as a multi-racial man in a white man’s golfing world and uber athletic body changed the definition of what a successful golfer looked like.

“What Tiger Woods has done for golf, I’m not sure anyone would do again,” Rory McIlroy has said.  “Not just how unbelievably talented he was, but what he stood for, where he came from. He brought a whole new demographic into golf and sort of made golf cool again for kids.”

Woods also had a tremendous economic impact on golf, helping to develop the sport even further.

According to a BBC Article from December 2015, “In 1996, the year Tiger burst onto the scene, PGA Tour purses totaled more than $100m for the first time… In the previous six years they had grown at a rate of 3.4%.”  Between the time Woods won the 1997 Masters and 2008 US Open, purses went up to $292m.

“The results are astonishing,” said American political scientist Roger Pielke Jr in the BBC article, “Tiger effectively more than doubled the prize money for every other golfer, adding billions of dollars to fellow players’ pockets.”

And, for those accomplishments, Tiger Woods finishes out my Mount Rushmore of golf.

Who’s on yours?

 


Sources :

History Channel - Mount Rushmore: http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/mount-rushmore
World Golf HOF - Hagen: http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/walter-hagen/

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