As my colleague Charlie Miller has continued to unveil his elite quartets for each major league baseball franchise, it got me to thinking: Who is on golf’s Mount Rushmore?
Arnold Palmer received the Congressional Gold Medal this week as that body's "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions." Arnie is clearly one member of this elite foursome, as is Jack Nicklaus, who was also on hand for the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.
In completing my list, I used two primary criteria: achievement and impact. Who won important golf tournaments, and who transcended the game while doing so?
Here, then, is my ultimate foursome — the four men who have had the greatest, most lasting impact on the game of golf. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong.
Rather than recite Tiger’s resume, I’d rather revisit the one moment that made Woods’ spot on golf’s Mount Rushmore an inevitability. In April 1997, Woods so dominated the most storied and tradition-steeped tournament in golf that the sport was changed forever.
We all remember the Masters-record 18-under par total that Woods shot in his first Masters as a pro. We remember his incredible 12-shot margin of victory. (Runner-up Tom Kite’s 282 total would have been good enough to win 17 previous Masters, but it only got him within 12 shots of Tiger.) We remember the way his mammoth drives turned the par-5s into pitch-and-putts. What many people don’t remember about the 1997 Masters is how badly Tiger started the tournament. On the front nine on Thursday, Woods went out in 40, leaving him 4-over par. That, apparently, is when the stars aligned and the golf gods smiled. Over the next 63 holes, Woods swept through Augusta National like a tornado, toying with the course and demoralizing the greatest players in the world.
Tiger’s runaway, far from putting a crimp into the television ratings, instead gave golf its greatest ratings winner to date. In 1996, before Woods turned pro, the ratings were 9.2 on Sunday. In 1997, when Woods won, the number jumped to 14.1.
The rest, as they say, is history — 14 major championships, 74 PGA Tour wins, the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history, 10 Player of the Year awards, and, yes, scandal and disgrace. But the impact and the level of achievement are undeniable and unprecedented.
Nicklaus brought out greatness in his opponents — Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game through his physical skill and strength, his mental toughness, his sustained level of excellence and his genius for strategically dismantling golf courses around the world.
You know the litany of accomplishments. 18 major championships, more than Hogan and Palmer combined. A mind-boggling 37 top twos in majors.
And lest we think the Tour of the 21st Century outshines the Tour in Jack’s prime, consider this: Nicklaus fought many of the game’s greatest at their very peak and beat them all. And when he didn’t beat them, he coaxed their very best out of them.
As if to prove the point, at age 46, Nicklaus was able to muster enough of his old-time wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, Norman — all of them at the peak of their powers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986 in one of the greatest sports moments of all time.
In his golden years, the Golden Bear has continued to shape the game with his prolific golf course design company.
There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than the King, Arnold Palmer. He quadrupled purses, brought golf away from the country clubs and into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
From 1958 to 1968, Palmer reigned amid the azaleas and pines of Augusta National, where Arnie’s Army first mustered. With the lone exception of 1963, he was in contention at every Masters during that epic stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once and fourth twice.
Although he made his reputation at The Masters — and made the tournament what it is today — it was the 1960 U.S. Open that truly captured the King at the peak of his powers. The leaderboard on that final day included a chubby 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus. It included a legend — the Hawk, Ben Hogan. The third member of this historic trio lit a cigarette, stalked to the tee of the 318-yard, par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills and drove the green on his way to a historic final-round 65, erasing a seven-stroke deficit for the greatest comeback in Open history.
If winning is the standard for determining excellence, there is no greater player in golf history than Sam Snead.
Using a smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing, Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player — a staggering total of 81 PGA Tour titles, and anywhere from 135 to 165 victories worldwide, depending on whom you ask. He posted wins in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in that event), when he was 52 years old.
Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff triumph over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA Championships and a British Open.
There is one hole in the Slammer’s résumé that prevents him from staking a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in history. Somehow, Snead never won the one tournament that seemingly should have been his by birthright. He never won a U.S. Open. But his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish his accomplishments.
His swing was such an efficient device that it served him well into his golden years and remains the gold standard for golf swings. In 1979, he offered golf fans one final glimpse of his greatness, as he became the first player to score below his age, shooting 67 and 66 in the Quad Cities Open at the age of 67. By then, and for the rest of his life, Snead was a beloved ambassador and advocate for the game.
Ben Hogan is widely considered the greatest ball-striker in the game’s history, and he changed golf instruction forever with his Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Along with Nicklaus, Woods, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen, he’s one of five players to own a career Grand Slam. His courage in coming back from a near-fatal car crash added to his legend. His tough-to-love, prickly personality kept him distant from fans and keeps him off Mount Rushmore. Barely.
Gary Player was golf’s first global ambassador, winning tournaments all over the world, including nine major championships.
Seve Ballesteros was Europe’s version of Arnold Palmer, putting a sport on his back and selling it to an entire continent. Almost singlehandedly, he transformed the Ryder Cup into one of the greatest spectacles in sports.
Bobby Jones was the game’s breakthrough superstar who pulled off one of golf’s signature achievements with his 1930 Grand Slam — winning the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateurs in one season. Oh, and he founded The Masters.
Byron Nelson was golf’s greatest gentleman and the author of its greatest individual achievement — 11 wins in a row in 1945, a season in which he won 18 tournaments in all.
Tom Watson won eight majors and dominated golf’s oldest tournament, the British Open, like no one else, winning five times in a nine-year span and coming close to a historic sixth win in 2009 at age 59.