Now that the days are past when a handful dominate American golf the question is…

Who replaces the “Big Three”?

By Henry Longhurst, Golf Illustrated
August 27, 1969

Some time ago I wrote to the effect that I thought the days when a single player or group of players dominated world golf were very probably over, so it was with smug satisfaction that I read soon afterwards almost identical words from Jack Nicklaus.

It is nice to have one’s modest opinions confirmed from on high. The Great Triumvirate of Vardon, Taylor and Braid dominated their period and, though Sandy Herd did win the Open against them in their prime, it is not unfair to suggest that he did so largely because he alone had one of the new-fangled rubber-cored balls instead of the guttie. And lest this be held against the memory of old Sandy, let it also be recalled that in a tournament at Moor Park he went round in 67 on the eve of his 70th birthday. I so well remember a young professional saying bitterly, “I’m a third of his… age and I… well take 79!”

Jones, Hagen and Sarazen, of course, dominated their age in the Golden twenties just as surely, and heaven knows what Byron Nelson would have done if it had not been for the war. In 1945 he won 11 tournaments in a row and, though the quality of the opposition was not what it is today, Byron averaged 68-33 for 120 successive rounds of tournament play.

I believe that in a whole year he won $66,000 in War Bond prize money, or just $16,000 more than Frank Beard won the other Sunday at Westchester. It is not enough to be good; you have got to be good at the right time!

From 1948 through to the middle fifties it was Ben Hogan, and here it was not a group of men but one man. Was he greater than Jones or Vardon? I think this age-old argument, which applies, and always will, to any sport you care to name was really resolved by Jones himself, who wrote, “All you can do is to beat the ones that are around when you are around. You cannot beat the ones that went before or those that are to come.”

So let us say simply that Hogan beat those who were around when he was around and many of them might have figured high in the history books if he himself had not been around.

Hogan won the US Open four times and when he came to the British Open in 1953 – it was largely Hagen who persuaded him that a golfer was not complete until he had won in the “original” conditions over here – he not only conquered a course which he actively disliked at first sight but also won with four rounds, each one lower than the one before.

After Hogan I suppose one could say that in a way Palmer also dominated the scene single-handed. For a year or two if you had asked any knowledgeable golfer, “Who is the greatest golfer in the world?”, I am sure h would instantly and without reservation have replied “Palmer”. The fact that it became, “The Big Three” was due to Mark McCormack, who had become Palmer’s manager and needed someone to line him up with, so to speak.

No sooner had he signed up Gary Player than the latter obliged by winning the Masters, which was just about the most important event in his golfing life. McCormack looked around and his gaze fell upon the burly figure of Jack Nicklaus, who at the age of about 20 was already making a sizeable income selling life insurance.

McCormack persuaded him that whatever he might be making out of the life insurance it was chicken feed beside what he would make as a professional. One day Nicklaus took the plunge – many of his friends being certain that he had done the wrong thig – and almost immediately obliged by winning his first tournament. The fact that it happened to be the US Open did the common cause no harm and from then onwards it was the “Big Three.”

The money they have made must be fantastic – and, let it be added, the friends as well, for they have conducted themselves with the utmost decorum and really Palmer’s ability to suffer fools gladly should long ago have earned him some special award. Now the fire is beginning to burn a bit lower, and who shall wonder? There is a limit to what the human mind and body can give out. Constant travel, advancing years (Nicklaus is nearly 30! – but don’t forget that Bobby Jones retired with all worlds conquered at 28) and above all the psychological effect of knowing that you don’t need the money, so what the hell and why can’t I go fishing? All these have taken or are taking their toll and the Big Three find themselves remorselessly chased by the rest of the field and sometimes hard put to it to survive the cut and play on the final day.

Who will take their place? No one, says Nicklaus, and the fact that they had 30 different winners in 34 tournaments seems to confirm what he says. It will be fairer, perhaps, to share it out, but all the same there is nothing like a national figure for popularizing a game.

And yet, when all is said and done, who is the real national professional figure? Why, the golf club pro – the one who is always with us, from eight in the morning to last thing at night.

Let me close by begging any club captain to obtain details, if he has not got them already of the splendid “Club Professional of the Year” promoted by Coates and Co, of whose Plymouth Gin you may have heard.

Any club committee who feel they would like to send in a citation for their professional will probably find the details in the Secretary’s office. If not, a card to George Simms, 18 Bride Lane, EC4, will produce the details by return.