Slammin' Sam Snead
While most of us are familiar with the current crop of stars that dominate on the PGA Tour, the concept of an actual professional tour dates back to the early 1930s.
If you go back to 1930, you would see that of the four tournaments we call major championships now, only two of them were considered majors at the dawn of professional tour golf. In fact when Bobby Jones won what was considered the grand slam, two of those four tournaments were amateur championships, the United States Amateur and the British Amateur.
In that year of 1930, Jones won the U.S. Open then added the Open Championship after literally steaming across the Atlantic on a boat.
The PGA Championship started in 1919, but along with college football, the amateur game was considered the better flavor of the two and was more highly regarded.
With the advent of an actual professional tour, that sentiment started to change in the mid-1930s and Bobby Jones’ own creation of the Augusta National Invitational in 1934 gave the professional game a much-needed boost in a championship we today call The Masters.
Here is a look at some of the best players by decade from Gene Sarazen to Rory McIlroy as the game has grown from playing for meal-and-travel money to a tour that pays out over $250 million per season.
Arguably the best golfer to play in the 1930s was Henry Picard.
Picard would win two majors in the decade, the 1938 Masters and the 1939 PGA Championship.
Picard would end the 1930s with an impressive total of 26 wins, but in a sign of just how much things have changed, only made the trip to Britain for the Open Championship twice.
Picard was a head club professional throughout his playing days and well beyond, teaching old and new how to play the game he loved.
The other big name of the era between Bobby Jones and the trio of Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan was the “Squire” himself, Gene Sarazen.
Sarazen is probably best known for his double-eagle on the 15th hole in the final round of the 1935 Masters that he ended up winning the next day in a 36-hole playoff.
Best known on the course for his amazingly accurate iron play, Sarazen won four majors in the 1930s becoming the first player to win what we would consider now the career grand slam and 22 times in total on what became the PGA Tour.
In a decade that was torn apart by the Second World War, two men from Texas became the cream of the professional golf crop.
“Lord” Byron Nelson may have perhaps the most unbreakable record in golf as he won 11 straight starts on tour in 1945. In a decade that saw him win a total of 41 times, Nelson took full advantage of the weakened fields from the war in 1945 and won an amazing 18 times that year.
While those fields may not have been the strongest, Nelson would win five majors between 1937 and 1945 including two Masters and PGA Championships and a solo U.S. Open in 1939 in a three-way playoff.
If Nelson was not winning championships in the 1940s, Ben Hogan was.
Hogan won 53 times in the 1940s including 11 times in 1948 and two majors.
Hogan would win nine majors in his career, six of them after a life-threatening car accident in February of 1949 that fractured his pelvis and made walking very painful the rest of his life.
Hogan’s last major came in 1953 at Carnoustie. In his lone trip to the Open Championship, Hogan became the second player to win the modern career grand slam.
Undoubtedly the four-time U.S. Open champion would have won more than the two PGA Championships he won before the accident, but the grueling match-play format used was too much, and he did not enter again until it became a stroke-play tournament starting in 1959.
The third member of the trio in Sam Snead still holds the record for most PGA Tour wins ever with 82.
Starting in 1936, Snead would continue to win until 1965 and contended in tournaments into the 1970s.
Snead won a total of 31 times in the 50s and claimed three of his seven majors in the decade.
A three-time winner of the Masters and the PGA, Snead also won the first Open Championship after World War II in 1946.
Outside of his prolific ability to win, Snead posted three top 10s in the PGA Championships from 1972-74 after he turned 60 and was a driving force behind the creation of the Champions Tour.
The other big force in pro golf in the 1950s was actually a dentist by trade.
Cary Middlecoff would win 28 of his 40 Tour wins in the 50s including two majors.
Middlecoff looked like he jumped off a Norman Rockwell painting and onto the golf course. He also was one of the first players to make the successful transition from the course to television.
If there was a player that mixed a solid winning game with Hollywood looks and blue-collar appeal, then you would be talking about Arnold Palmer.
Palmer won 43 times in the '60s and won six majors between 1960 and 1964.
With “Arnie’s Army” surrounding him on every hole, Palmer endeared himself to television viewers with swashbuckling shots, flicking an occasional cigarette and hitching his slacks.
While Hogan, Snead and Nelson were not country club creatures growing up, Palmer’s presence and popularity were due to the fact he looked like the guy next door.
Palmer took that everyman persona and continues to be a commercial spokesperson for a number of products from Pennzoil to MasterCard.
Palmer, with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, formed the first great television trio in the sport and were “The Big Three” in '60s golf.
Gary Player was the first international star to become a household name in this country since the 1930s. The South African only won 10 times on Tour during the 1960s, but made those count as four of those wins were majors and he completed his career grand slam by winning the 1968 Open Championship.
Player would add four more majors to go with 11 more wins in the 1970s, but Player’s impact on creating interest in the global game will always be his biggest accomplishment.
After winning 31 times as a pro in the 1960s, Jack Nicklaus became the first big name in golf since Sam Snead to have a second decade more successful than the first.
The '70s saw Nicklaus win 37 times and eight of his 18 majors.
When Nicklaus won the 1978 Open Championship, he became the first player ever to win the career grand slam in two different decades.
Nicklaus was so dominant, he only missed one cut in a major out of 40 the entire decade, only missing the mark at the 1978 PGA.
Rivals with Palmer and Player in the '60s, Nicklaus would have famous duels with Lee Trevino and a young Tom Watson in the '70s culminated with a 36-hole virtual match with Watson at the 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry.
Unlike Nicklaus who was also one of the best amateur players of all-time, Lee Trevino was self-taught.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Trevino learned to hustle military brass at Fort Bliss and turned that into a career that saw him win 29 times in total and six majors.
His first win came at the 1968 U.S. Open and the “Merry Mex” would win 21 times in the 1970s including four of his six majors.
For all of Trevino’s accomplishments, he never felt comfortable at Augusta and only had two top-10s there in his career.
When the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews came up with the concept of the Open Championship way back in the 1860s, little did they know that a kid from Kansas would become one of the most successful winners ever.
Between 1975 and 1983, Tom Watson would win five Open Championships.
Watson was the best player on the planet from 1975 and 1985, adding two Masters and a memorable win in the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach chipping in for a birdie off the 17th green from the rough and denying Jack Nicklaus a record fifth Open.
Watson would win 19 times in the 1980s in a decade that saw the fields grow in strength and certainly become more global.
The only major Watson could not win was the PGA, finishing second once in 1978.
Best known for a steely resolve wrapped in a package that would cool a cucumber, Watson stared down the best players in the world and beat them.
The other big name in 1980s golf never played full time here in the United States and, like Gary Player before, Seve Ballesteros made the game of golf a big deal on the mainland of Europe.
The ultimate riverboat gambler, Ballesteros won 38 times in Europe and five times here between 1980 and 1989.
Seve won five majors in all, three Open Championships and two Masters where he contended in five more finishing in the top five.
He also was the first mainland hero for Europe in the Ryder Cup when play was extended off the British Isles starting in 1979.
For the first time in American golf history, the best players that played here on tour were actually not American.
The best-known name from that era was “The Shark” Greg Norman.
Like Ballesteros and Player before in their countries, Norman made golf a front-page sport in Australia.
When he was on he was unbeatable, but he also suffered some of the most memorable collapses in the history of the game. Holding a six-shot lead on the 10th tee on Sunday at the 1996 Masters, Norman just fell apart coming home to Nick Faldo and ended up losing by five shots.
He also held the 54-hole lead at each of the four majors in 1986 and only won the Open Championship.
With his only other major coming at the 1993 Open Championship, Norman won 12 times in the '90s and was consistent enough to claim the No. 1 spot in the new Official World Golf Rankings for most of the decade.
The decade’s other most consistent golfer was Zimbabwe’s Nick Price.
Nick won 15 times on tour in the '90s including three majors.
After establishing himself as a force in Europe in the '80s, Price played full time in the States in the '90s and racked up a total of 11 top-10 finishes in the majors.
The highlight for Price in the era of golf between truly big-named stars was in 1994 when he claimed both the Open Championship and the PGA back-to-back becoming the first player ever to do that.
The rise and fall of Tiger Woods is pretty well documented, but not since Byron Nelson in the late-40s has one player just dominated as many tournaments the way Woods did the first part of the 21st century.
Woods won 53 times between 2000 and 2009 including 12 of his 14 majors. Only Ben Hogan could claim that many wins over a single decade, and the fields he played in were certainly not as strong as they were at Tiger’s peak.
The game’s biggest phenom since Jack Nicklaus, Woods spent the decade stalking Jack’s records and has slowly beaten most of them.
The first golfer to ever win a U.S. Open with a score better than 10-under par, Woods putted so well that week at Pebble Beach in 2000 that he never had a three-putt on any hole.
The more he destroyed a course, the more people stopped and watched. Unlike Nicklaus with Palmer and his fans, Tiger came out universally loved and grew the interest in the game of golf as much as Michael Jordan grew the NBA.
Woods earned his career grand slam in 2000 at St. Andrews at the Open Championship and his win at the 2001 Masters gave him all four majors at the same time, the first since Bobby Jones did it in 1930.
In any other era, Phil Mickelson would not be seen as a second banana, but even his 24 wins in the 2000s are overshadowed by Tiger’s brilliance.
Mickelson won for the first time as an amateur in 1991 and won over crowds by being able to create a shot out of pretty much any given situation.
His gracious smile and demeanor continued to win him over fans, and when he finally broke through for the first of his four majors at the 2004 Masters, it was one of the most popular wins in the game’s history.
Lefty would add a PGA and two more Masters to his resume and has attained the same popularity as Arnold Palmer gained 50 years before.
To try and say that this decade has a most dominant golfer at this early stage is pushing it, but Rory McIlroy would be that guy.
Winner of two majors by huge margins, McIlroy already has six wins here in his first three seasons and has drawn comparisons to Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as far as sheer talent at a young age.
With a bunch of talent currently on the Tour under 30, McIlroy leads the way into a bright future for the game of golf.