Past vs. Present: How today’s Greats Stack Up Against Legends of the Past, Pt. 1

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus; Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

Today’s professional golfers are incredible athletes, but can they really be compared to golf’s greatest players from years past?

Consider Jordan Spieth’s amazing win at the 2015 Masters this year; it certainly had everyone talking, including Tiger Woods. When asked what he thought about the 21-year-old’s final score during the year’s first major tournament, Woods stated, “With the length of the golf course, I didn’t think that people would be getting that low, but they kept it soft all week.”

Withholding a blunt response, Woods was basically saying the course Spieth won on this year didn’t hold a candle to the Augusta National of 1997. Such a statement makes sense, considering that Woods’ first Masters win by 18-under in 1997 eclipsed the closest player, Tom Kite, by a whopping 12 strokes. Not only that, but only 16 golfers shot under par during the ’97 Masters.

Compare that to the 32 players including Spieth that beat par at Augusta this year, and the four-time Masters champion underhandedly makes a great point: his win was tougher.

And what about today’s No. 1 ranked golfer, Rory McIlroy? Sure, he made headlines for driving the green at 436 yards during the 2014 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, a distance that seemed to demolish Arnold Palmer’s famous 346-yard drive at the 1960 U.S. Open. But one has to keep in mind that Arnie nailed his golf ball with a persimmon driver, a far cry from the revolutionary Nike Vapor Pro driver Rory uses on Tour.

A lot has changed since the time players like Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen graced America’s golf courses of the 1920s. So how do today’s best golfers really stack up against golf legends of the past?

A League of Their Own

It would be easy to make the argument that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer to ever play the game. He’s the winner of 79 official PGA Tour events, 14 majors, and the only player to win all four major championships in a row – ever. But how does he stand up against a player like Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record for major tournament wins at 18, a number that Tiger has found elusive late in his career?

There’s no doubt that each one of Tiger’s 14 major wins are incredible accomplishments in themselves, but the Golden Bear won his titles from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, a time where personal swing instructors, golf technology, and course conditions were sub-par compared to today’s professional golf environment. Couple his longstanding majors record with his career 73 PGA Tour wins – just 6 shy of Tiger’s – and one could also easily make the case that Nicklaus surpasses Woods in golf supremacy.

A Different World

We could just stop at the Nicklaus-Woods comparison, but let’s face it: professional golf today is nothing like it was during the early to mid-20th century. Billy Casper was one of the most prolific winners of PGA Tour events of his time, holding a career 51 PGA Tour events to his name spanning from 1956 to 1975. Casper was also the second professional golfer to ever break $1 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour, and it took him 14 long years to do it.

Phil Mickelson – one of today’s most renowned pro golfers – also has something in common with Casper: he’s the closest active player in contention to beat Casper’s 51-win record (6 other pro golfers have already surpassed it). The 44-year-old Mickelson currently stands at 42 PGA Tour victories, but his competitive window grows smaller as the years drag on. By comparison, Casper nailed his 51st win a little over a month before his 44th birthday.

Would Mickelson have more wins playing with mid-century golf balls and clubs on the shaggier courses of the 50s and 60s? Probably not. So is there really any way to compare how today’s golf greats stack up against those from years past? Unfortunately, the only way to be sure would be to load up players like McIlroy, Woods, Els and Furyk in a time machine and send them to a Johnson-era course to play a round against the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.

Our guess is the Old Guard would be more than happy to take the Next Generation to school for a day.

Brad Pecot

Director of Marketing, Golfballs.com

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