I've never been one to wax nostalgic about the great sports heroes of the past. As far as I'm concerned, athletes today are bigger, faster and more skilled.
I think Shaq would score 100 on Wilt; I don't think Babe Ruth could hit a hard slider; and if Frank Gifford played in today's NFL, I'm sure they would have to carry him off the field on a stretcher.
It's always treacherous to compare sportsmen across eras.
I recently wrote of series of articles trying to rank the greatest golfers of all time (Link here). To avoid the era dilemma, I only judged the golfers by how dominant they were versus the peers of their day. I suggested that the greatest player of all time is the player who was most successful during his own era.
This type of analysis is fairer to older athletes and allows players like Wilt Chamberlain and Babe Ruth to be compared favorably to modern era athletes, even though the old timers were clearly less gifted physically.
After reading many books on golf history, however, I have begun to question whether or not golf might be an exception to this rule. After all, bigger and stronger doesn't seem to matter that much when it comes to the golf swing.
Also, in golf we analysts have a couple of advantages compared to other sports.
First, golf isn't a team sport, so we don't have to worry about whether Bill Russell or Joe Montana were great players or were just on great teams. Golf is simply golfer versus golf course.
Second, in many cases today's golfers are playing the same golf courses that older era golfers played. This allows us to make some comparisons that we can't make in other sports.
Consider the following:
--The US Open has been held at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York five times. Here are the winning scores in relation to par:
--The average winning score at Augusta National between 1934 and 1949 was minus 7 strokes in relation to par. The average winning score from 1995-2008 was minus 9 strokes in relation to par.
--In 1937 Byron Nelson shot a 66 in the first round of the Masters at Augusta. The record stood until Ray Floyd's 65 in the first round in 1976.
--In the first round of the 1904 British Open J.H. Taylor shot a 68. In the third round of the 1929 British Open, Walter Hagen shot a 67.
--Ben Hogan won the Vardon Trophy in 1948 with an average score of 69.3. In 2008 Sergio Garcia won the Vardon Trophy with a score of 69.12.
In defense of modern golfers, despite the examples above, in general their average scores are much lower than golfers from the 1920s and 1940s. Also, they are facing some significant disadvantages.
We know that Augusta and Winged Foot have been lengthened considerably in modern times. Also, in 1948 Hogan probably played some pretty easy courses that aren't around anymore.
In addition to being lengthened, other measures have been taken to make today's courses more difficult, including narrower fairways, thicker rough and tougher pin placements.
Modern golfers, however, are playing with vastly superior equipment. It seems reasonable to suggest that equipment may fully compensate for the extended length of the courses as well as their more difficult set up.
After all, all the changes made to the courses have been made specifically by knowledgeable course designers to neutralize the effects of better golf balls and club heads.
Now let's review some of the disadvantages older era golfers faced in terms of scoring. Here is a list, not necessarily in order of importance:
Lack of practice
Because tournament purses were minuscule, most of the golfers ran the pro shops at private golf clubs to earn a living.
Instead of spending every hour of their waking day practicing, these guys were selling golf shoes, reconciling receipts and giving lessons to rich hackers.
Bobby Jones earned a B.A. from Harvard and attended law school during his heyday.
"Hogan invented practice," said Byron Nelson.
Travel conditions were horrendous.
Let's make a bet. I'll fly from LA to Houston in a private jet. You drive the same trip with four guys in a 1938 Ford with no air conditioning. And oh, make sure you take the old two lane highway instead of the interstate.
We'll tee it up as soon as you arrive and see whose game is sharper.
Until 1939 your opponent wasn't allowed to mark his ball on the green if his ball was between your ball and the hole. You were "stymied." Players would have to chip over the other golf ball.
No lift, clean, and place on the green
Until 1960 you weren't allowed to lift, clean and place your ball on the green and you weren't allowed to repair ball marks. Players had to putt over ball marks and putt with mud and debris on the ball.
Lift, clean and place wasn't allowed in the fairway in wet, muddy conditions either.
Poor putting greens
The condition of putting greens was a joke. Putting was much more fickle with greens that at best can be described as bumpy.
The greens were so grassy and slow that players had to cock and release their wrists to get their putts to the hole.
No yardage markers
Golfers judged distances by sight alone. Nicklaus invented the personal yardage book.
No personal caddies Golfers hired local caddies at the tournaments they played at.
No swing coaches, no personal trainers, no sport medicine specialists, no psychologists
Why were older era golfers still able to post such low scores? The answer is simple: they were better golfers. And they were better precisely because the equipment was inferior.
Modern players simply hit driver/wedge, driver/wedge, driver/wedge all day. Once upon a time, golfers had to master every club and every shot in the bag, otherwise they wouldn't be successful.
Look at it this way. Who's a better pilot, the 1930s bi-plane barnstormer or the guy flying a modern jetliner?