Against our engrained golf compass, the PGA Tour has started a new season. Gone, for the most part, is the “silly season,” when we watched our heroes collect big money only available to the most dominant players.
Nicklaus, Player, Palmer, Trevino, Watson competed for what was thought to be an insane amount of $100,000 for a 36-hole foursome match, but they were the best in the world, so why shouldn’t they retire wealthy? Fred Couples made a career out of winning TV challenges.
Accompanying the new season are the hopes and dreams of many first qualifiers mixed in with some who have regained their exempt status to work on the world’s biggest golf stage.
There is no shortage of personal ambitions, beginning with improving their position after the reshuffle in March.
Normally, the most established players use the fall season to test equipment changes, swing changes and/or to rest. In effect, this causes a slight reduction in the strength of the fields.
First, let me say that winning on the PGA Tour is extremely difficult and always has been, but there are times and tournaments that aren’t quite as difficult to win.
Everyone knows the major championships are the most difficult, followed closely by the Players Championship and the World Golf Championships.
The courses are set up to identify the best player, the fields are the strongest and history adds a bit of flavour, so right now, at this moment in golf history, how difficult is it to win compared to other points in the past?
One thing that has changed a lot over the years is the purses. First prize varies from nearly $1-million to nearly $2-million when the average USA household income is $52.000, nearly 20 times at the top end.
In 1960, the winner might receive $20,000 or 1.25 times the average household income and in 1940, a $2000 winner’s share of a purse represented about two-thirds of the annual household average.
In 2016, if a player can compete for about five years without winning, he can earn about $5-million, plus off-course revenue of another equal amount.
Post PGA Tour, that same player can generate a very significant income for a very long time through appearance fees and sponsor money.
A perfect example is Canada’s own, Mike Weir, who has lifetime winnings on the PGA Tour of close to $28-million. With this kind of money available, I believe the will to win is eroded in many cases. Weir never lost his desire, but did suffer several career-limiting injuries.
Every player in the Top 125 has the ability and credentials to win, making the strength of the fields in 2016 the deepest they have ever been, but how many actually do win and how difficult is it?
Currently, the No. 1 player, Jason Day, is taking medical leave, Dustin Johnson has the longest streak for consecutive years (nine) with a PGA Tour victory, but only has an average of slightly more than one per year to get to 12.
Jordan Spieth has won seven times on the PGA Tour in two years, Rory has 13 career wins on tour as has Adam Scott 13. First-time winners such as Mackenzie Hughes at the recent RSM Classic are plentiful.
As a result, it is very difficult to be a dominant player or to win three or more events per year As young players earn their playing privileges, bringing with them an incredible skill level, winning will be even more difficult and winning a lot will be next to impossible.
In the Tiger era, the field might not have been as deep but the level of his competition was superb. He won 79 times, but Phil Mickelson won 42, Vijay Singh 34, Ernie Els 19 and Jim Furyk 17.
The fields were strong with, at various times, Scott, Steve Stricker, Sergio Garcia, Zach Johnson, Luke Donald and Stewart Cink. Considering how many excellent players there were during this time, Tiger’s utter and complete dominance is significant.
Going back, we arrive in the late 1950s to the 1970s, the era of the “Big Three” – Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. Between them, they won 159 events including 34 majors.
In these years it was difficult enough to simply beat each other but then add in the rest of the field, such as Billy Casper, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd, Gene Littler, Hubert Green and Tom Weiskopf.
When you think of what amazing careers each of these men had, it is even more amazing that they enjoyed them during the time in which they competed against one another. How could Palmer. Player and Nicklaus have been so successful?
Record-keeping from the early days until about 1960 is little sketchy, but nonetheless, some fantastic golf was played, beginning with the fact that Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead were all born in 1912 and rose to the pinnacle of golf history.
Further, Nelson and Hogan both caddied at the Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Tx., and played off for the annual caddie championship, forming a lifelong relationship.
Those three won 198 tournaments including 21 majors; more often than not, they all finished in the top 5 money places.
Playing tournament golf just after the depression, these men were up against Cary Middlecoff, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, Macdonald Smith and Paul Runyan.
The times were different because of the equipment and course conditions but this triumvirate of Snead, Hogan and Nelson took home a lot of hardware due to superior ball striking.
However, the finest short game player of all-time, Paul Runyan, won 29 times with two majors and couldn’t drive the ball more than 220 yards (50 less than Snead and Hogan). Snead called him “Little Poison” and he was that.
There are other times of significance when it comes to winning large numbers of golf tournaments, but these are the most noticeable, so when was the easiest time to win on the PGA Tour?
It’s never easy to win for the first time but that’s not the question. The question is “When is it the easiest to win a lot”?
In my opinion, that time is now. The roar of the Tiger is muffled, Phil is tough but aging and hasn’t been winning lately, Day has back issues, Rory is making a bit of a comeback, but no one is dominant. The only player I see who can win every week is Dustin Johnson, but does he have the desire?
According to a mathematical formula devised by website “ArmchairGM,” which looked at lifetime earnings of the best players of all-time somewhat equitably, factoring in the times to compare the earning of players of different eras. Some fairly predictable results were established.
Here are the adjusted results.
1 Sam Snead $200,865,773
2 Jack Nicklaus $175,089,264
3 Ben Hogan $160,060,367
4 Arnold Palmer $145,792,246
5 Byron Nelson $133,291,270
6 Billy Casper $120,367,151
7 Tiger Woods $117,701,914
8 Julius Boros $107,186,617
9 Lloyd Mangrum $107,109,276
10 Tom Watson $105,572,013
The chart doesn’t say when it was easiest to win, nor does it say who is the best player of all-time, but it does provide a great debating tool for anyone so inclined to participate.
Today, many reference Tiger as the greatest ever, but who knew that Billy Casper would have finished higher in money won and Tiger would be seventh?
Further, in the Hogan, Nelson Snead era, three of them finished in the top five and Nelson retired when he was 34.
In the Nicklaus time frame there are four in the top 10, plus Trevino, Floyd, Irwin and Tom Kite to contend with.
Once you are in the frame of mind to ponder, “When was it easiest to win on the PGA Tour?” why don’t we talk about how much fun it would be to watch Nicklaus, Hogan, Snead and Jones play with today’s equipment?
Regardless, every era is fun to study and talk about and 2017 will be no different.