As golf fans, we constantly strive to concoct a rivalry between top players.
Undoubtedly, because golf is an individual sport, the outcome of certain tournaments and/or matches better serves our needs if we can find a way to pit a couple of players against one another.
If we had our way, we’d love to have Jack Nicklaus stand up and bad-mouth Arnold Palmer or Gary Player just to know there was something personal on the line but he didn’t.
In the true tradition of golf where gentlemen compete with dignity, respect and honour, fans can only conjure up their own images of a grudge match. The players may have become champions through hard work, hitting exhausting numbers of practice shots but somehow, they managed to develop top level skills while not revealing their innermost thoughts.
We all know given the mandatory immense ego, or at the very least super human confidence and belief in one’s self, not every player could possibly like every other player.
From a viewing enjoyment perspective, rivalries enhance the experience. We loved watching Jack, Arnie and Gary stride down the fairways knowing full well each wanted desperately to oust the others.
From their points of view, each motivated the other two to work harder, be more dedicated and study the game from every angle in an attempt to win. The fierce desire within each of them contributed greatly to the ultimate success of the others and the fans loved it.
The original ‘Big 3’ operated in the late 1800s through to the early 1900s, consisting of Harry Vardon, James Braid and John Henry Taylor, who dominated the Open Championship of that era. They fed off each other and delighted in winning against such stellar opposition.
In the mid to late 1920’s there wasn’t an officially recognized ‘Big 3.’ but Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones dominated the major championships.
Even though Jones was an amateur he was every bit as skilled as the other two, but his amateur status limited the opportunities for head-to-head play. However, they did motivate each other and the fans loved it.
A real ‘Big 3’ was born in the late 1940’s with the arrival of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. Nelson and Hogan came off the same caddie bench in Texas and had competed against each most of their lives.
Hogan had endured some of what he considered unequal treatment and that fueled his spirit. Nelson and Snead were extremely diligent at practice and a determined Hogan saw his only chance to overcome them was to outwork them.
The American triumvirate was each born in 1912 and won so many tournaments, set so many records and shot so many low scores, books are written of their exploits. In fact, Nelson felt he had been successful enough that he quit competitive golf at age 34 right in the midst of his prime.
They brought with them a passion for victory and desire for perfection never seen before and the trio combined to change the face of golf in America. Even today, fans read of their accomplishments and marvel at the quality of their play.
In the 1960s and 1970’s we had the Jack, Arnie and Gary series of tales, but along the way fans were treated to a few extra characters who, had the ‘Big 3’ not existed, might have formed their own version.
We saw Billy Casper who was one of the finest players of all time become overshadowed by media darlings, Tom Watson, a superior player with a fantastic career; fun-loving Lee Trevino could tell stories like Sam Snead and play as well as anyone ever has, and the likes of Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Tom Weiskopf.
Then again, the earlier Hogan, Snead, Nelson group also had to contend with support actors like Johnny Farrell, Lloyd Mangrum and Jimmy Demaret. Nobody has ever been exempt from tough competition.
Probably the most distinguished player of all time who avoided joining a ‘Big 3’ is Tiger Woods. He demolished his competitors and lowered records by such wide margins that he literally played his whole career with his only competition posted over his childhood bed in the form of Nicklaus’ career majors list.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was said players could hear the encroaching footprints of the Bear, but nothing was ever more evident then the lack of oxygen surrounding Tiger’s marches to victory.
With all of that behind us what does the future hold?
Will there a ‘Big 3’?
I hope not!
I hope it’s a ‘Big 6’.
Rory McIlroy needs to fully recover from his injury! I hope Jordan Spieth continues to improve and develop. Rickie Fowler seems to be learning his lessons from Butch very well! I hope Jason Day is just beginning and Justin Rose and Bubba Watson too.
I also hope they are perpetually hounded by Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Tony Finau and the list goes on. That’s what makes it great/
Sure we will miss Tiger, but professional golf around the world, male and female, has never been better.