Strength of Depth in Golf is Stronger Than Ever
CAREERS are measured by success in majors. Jack Nicklaus won 18 of them, Tiger Woods 15. With improved fitness levels, there is no doubt that today’s top players remain competitive for longer than the legends of the game were able to do. Phil Mickelson proved the point by winning the US PGA Championship last year at the age of 50.
It is instructive to look at the players with the most victories on the PGA Tour. Sam Snead and Woods lead the way with 82 wins. Seven of Snead’s wins came in majors.
When you consider how much time Woods has lost to injury, his win ratio is remarkable.
But it is interesting to note that most of players with multiple victories to their credit are names from the past.
Nicklaus racked up 73 wins, ahead of Ben Hogan in fourth place with 64. Next comes Arnold Palmer with 62 (seven majors), followed by Byron Nelson on 52 (five majors), Billy Casper on 51 (3 majors) and Walter Hagen and Mickelson on 45. Hagen won 11 majors, Mickelson has six.
So what of today’s stars?
Dustin Johnson is tied for 26th place with Gary Player on 24 victories. Johnson has two majors to his name, Player won nine. Rory McIlroy is in joint 31st place with 21 PGA Tour wins, including four majors.
Johnson is 37 years old, McIlroy is 32. It is clear that they will not get anywhere close the players named above. If McIlroy continues at his present rate he may well get to 40 wins.
So what does this tell us?
There is no doubt that Snead, Woods, Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer, Nelson and Hagen were very special talents in their prime. Putting Woods to one side, it is also beyond doubt that the opposition they faced was nowhere near as strong as the fields that the likes of Johnson and McIlroy face today.
The strength in depth on the PGA Tour today is mind-boggling. Most run-of-the-mill tournaments boast fields of around 144 and on any given week any player in the field can win. If you doubt that, just take a look at the list of winners from the 2020-21 season.
Of course there were the usual suspects picking up trophies - McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa. And, as you would expect, we saw some exciting young talents emerge, most notably, Sam Burns and Garrick Higgo, of South Africa.
But who could ever have predicted that the following players would win? Seamus Power, Stewart Cink (twice), Jason Kokrak (twice), Brian Gay, Joel Dahmen, Martin Laird, Carlos Ortiz, Erik van Royen.
And it is a similar picture on the DP World Tour.
Seve Ballesteros tops the list with 50 wins (five majors), followed by Bernhard Langer on 42, Woods on 41, Colin Montgomerie on 31 and Nick Faldo on 30 (six majors). The only current player in the list is Lee Westwood, in eighth place with 25 victories, achieved over 25 years.
Westwood’s career has been a remarkable one, but is there any current player who is likely to overtake him? Probably not. McIlroy has 14 wins to his name but here’s the thing - Europe’s leading players now spend much of their time competing on the PGA Tour, so you can be pretty certain that nobody will ever come close to matching Seve’s total.
Further proof of the improved standards and incredible strength in depth comes when you look at the number of sub-60 rounds that have been achieved on the PGA Tour.
The first man to shoot a 59 was Al Geiberger in 1977. We had to wait 14 years before Chip Beck repeated the feat at the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational and a further eight years before David Duval joined the 59 club at the 1999 Bob Hope Classic.
But since 2010 there have been eight scores of 59. And in 2016 Jim Furyk went one better, shooting a 58 at the 2016 Travelers Championship. Remember that although there have been huge advances in club and ball technology, courses have also been extended.
So yes, the likes of Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer, Nelson and Hagen are true legends of the game, men who achieved wonderful things. But the statistics don’t lie - overall, today’s top professionals face greater competition and are better players.
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