Mickelson’s final-round charge that led to his win at The Open Championship, as well as another runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in June and his win at the Scottish Open in early July have a lot of folks talking about Lefty’s place in golf history.
Just a decade ago, Mickelson was viewed as an underachiever whose potential for major championship dominance never materialized for one of two reasons:
- Tiger Woods’ domination of major championships from 1997 to 2008.
- Mickelson’s aggressive style of play.
Five major championship victories later, no less of an authority than Jack Nicklaus has said that Mickelson will go down as one of the greatest players ever. With over 40 PGA Tour wins, and victories at the Masters (three times), PGA Championship and Open Championship, it is not too soon to discuss where Phil stands in the pantheon of great players — especially considering his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open, which would be a great career in itself for many long-time Tour players.
When we compile any list of the “best ever,” era comparisons invariably rear their head. It is difficult if not impossible to compare Old Tom Morris and Tiger Woods, so perhaps some criteria are in order. To be fair, we needs an apples-to-apples basis for our list and I think we have to consider some of the following:
Dominance: Was the golfer the dominant player of his/her era? Did he/she beat the others often enough to be the best player of that time? This is tricky, because in golf we’ve had “waves” of great players who often stood in the way of one another.
- The “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and J.H. Taylor, to the early American supremacy of Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen.
- The war years of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.
- The modern era of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
- The “Tiger” era.
In the first three eras, there always seem to be three players that stood out among the rest. So if a player didn’t win every time (in golf, they don’t), the greats were often in contention. For example, there’s no doubt that Palmer and Player took potential titles away from Nicklaus, but even when Nicklaus lost he was often in close pursuit.
Only Tiger Woods has stood head and shoulders above the rest in his era. The late 1990s to 2008-2009 is really the only time we’ve had one player completely dominate an era, with the possible exception of Bobby Jones from 1923 to 1930.
Some may argue that Tiger dominated the golf world because their was no other “great” player at the time. Tom Watson was past his prime, and Nick Faldo was slowly exiting the scene as well. Mickelson was still learning to win the big ones, and not the player he is now. Others like to argue that Tiger dominated because he was playing the best golf the world had ever seen, which I’ll touch on more later in the story.
Major championships: While it difficult to say where the cut off line would be, I will arbitrarily select five (5) as the number of majors a player had to win to be considered on our greatest-of-all-time category. Here, too, we are on a slippery slope, because majors have changed.
The U.S. Amateur is a great example: In Bobby Jones’ era, surely it was a major. In Jack’s era, it may have been marginally a major, and today is clearly is not. The Masters, a modern day major, was not played until 1934, and the PGA Championship not until 1916. So we have to be careful when comparing on this basis alone. But majors are how we define good from great in our game, and, in some form, we have to consider their records in them.
Longevity: Again, using this as one of our criteria can get confusing, as golf is a game where most players do NOT stay at their peak for very long. Nicklaus, Snead and Player are notable exceptions, but many of the game’s greats have had short reigns at the top.
Jones was at his best from 1923 to 1930, while Nelson was in his prime from 1937 to 1945. Even in the modern era, all of Palmer’s majors came in an 8-to-9-year period. And often the flame burns brightest before it burns out: Nelson, 18 wins in 1945, gone two years later; Jones won the grand slam in 1930, retired the next year. A player named Ralph Guldahl, one of the premiere players in the 1930s, won back to back U.S. Opens and nothing after really — so did Curtis Strange.
On the other hand, Snead won events over a 30-year period as did Gary Player, and Jack over 25 years. So we still have to give longevity a place on the list.
Total Wins: There’s no denying that great golfers are able amass their share of total tournaments won around the world, not just the PGA Tour. Gary Player, for example, won only 24 events on the PGA Tour, but over 150 worldwide. Tiger is rapidly approaching Sam Snead’s all-time record of 83 PGA Tour wins, but of course he also has 14 majors victories. Considering all that, here is my vote for the top 10 players ever:
No. 1: Jack Nicklaus
With 18 professional majors, 2 U.S. Amateur titles and 73 PGA Tour wins over 25 years, Jack’s record speaks for itself. Tiger has won three more times on the PGA Tour than Nicklaus, but until him or someone else tops his record 18 major championships, there is no question that “The Golden Bear” is the greatest golfer of all time.
The best golf that has even been played was from Woods from 2000 to 2008, but he still has work to do to catch Jack in longevity (Nicklaus won his last major at the age of 46) and majors.
No. 2: Tiger Woods
In his prime, Tiger was the best golfer the world has ever seen. Winning the U.S. Open Championship by 15 shots, the British Open by 11, the Masters by 12 and the “Tiger Slam” are just a few of the things that separate him from the others.
Consider this statistic: Tiger has won 25 percent of the professional tournaments he has played. The next best on that list is Phil at 8 percent! And I, for one, believe his comeback is almost complete and inevitable. But until then he remains firmly in second place, four majors away from the No. 1 spot.
No. 3: Ben Hogan
Hogan was the consummate ball striker, winning three consecutive majors in 1953 — The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open (he didn’t play in the PGA Championship).
The “Wee Ice man,” as the Scots affectionately named him, was one of the best ever. His nine major championships in a five year stretch is the stuff of legends, and it seems that his legend is improving as the years go by.
Remember this: Hogan basically only played the majors after his near-fatal car accident.
No. 4: Walter Hagen
With the possible exception of Gary Player, Hagen was the best match play player ever, and maybe as good a putter who has ever lived as well.
Hagen taught golfers that confidence is a MUST in championship golf, personifying his self belief with his lavish dress and habits. He won four consecutive PGA Championships (1924-1927), five British Opens and 2 U.S. Opens.
Once, needing to hole out from the fairway from 155 yards to force a playoff, Hagen had his caddie remove the flagstick! That’s confidence.
No. 5: Bobby Jones
The best amateur golfer of all time, and his No. 5 ranking here could easily be higher — Jones quit tournament golf at the unthinkable age of 28! In 1930, his grand slam year, he only played in two other events.
Remember this: Jones averaged one round a week during his playing days, and he put the clubs away most of the winter! He was an amazing talent that may never be duplicated. In his last 12 national championships (U.S. and British), he was first or second a staggering 11 times.
No. 6: Gary Player
With nine majors and over 100 victories worldwide, Gary Player brought physical and mental fitness to the world of professional golf. He was also the first to play the game internationally at the highest level.
Player is one of only five players to win the modern grand slam, and he also won the World Match Play Championship an unprecedented five times! But because he played in the same era as Nicklaus, Player’s place in history is sometimes greatly underrated.
No. 7: Sam Snead
Sam Snead is still the winningest player ever on the PGA Tour, with one of the sweetest swings anyone has ever seen. He amassed 81 wins on the PGA Tour, all while while playing in the era of Hogan and Nelson.
He won the West Virginia Open 17 times, often playing in bare feet in the early days. A natural athlete who took great care of his body, Snead could kick the top of a door frame with his other foot on the ground!
No. 8: Arnold Palmer
Every young player who collects a big, fat paycheck today should quietly thank Arnold palmer. “The King” popularized the game and brought it to the masses like no player before him.
Loved and adored by fans for his go-for-broke style, Palmer saved a moribund game and Tour after the Hogan era. Consider this: from 1960 to 1966, Palmer won the U.S. Open once (Cherry Hills, 1960), and played off for the title in 1962, 1963 and and 1966. Although he lost all those playoffs, that is first or tied for first for four out of six years!
No. 9: Byron Nelson
His 18 wins (19 if you count the New Jersey Open) in 1945 puts him automatically on my top-10 list. A quiet man, who eschewed the spotlight, his ball striking has become the stuff of legends.
Byron was alleged to hit a golf ball straighter than anyone before or since him. But he disliked tournament golf, often to the point of nausea before big matches.
Once Ben Hogan, who saw Nelson with his head in the toilet before the 1942 playoff for the Masters, actually offered to delay the start of the match! They didn’t and Nelson won. After his record-breaking 1945 season, he retired two years later.
No. 10: Harry Vardon and Tom Watson
I’m copping out a bit here because although the two played some 75 years apart, the single dominance of the British Open alone (six wins for Vardon and five for Watson) make it very difficult to choose.
Vardon actually invented the more modern golf swing, and left us with the famous “Vardon Grip,” the overlapping grip as we know it, and dominated golf just as it was coming to America.
Watson won 39 PGA Tour events, eight of them majors, and of course came within a whisker of winning the British Open at the age of 59 in 2009. He may be best known for his memorable battles (and victories) with Jack Nicklaus when Jack was in his prime.
I would love to hear from anyone who would adjust my list. Please remember, this my the list as it stands today. My list does not include Mickelson yet, but he is surely a bullet!
How can my list NOT include Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Billy Casper et al? Well, again it is my list, and I was asked to write the piece. Again, era comparisons are difficult at best, but it makes for great 19th hole conversation.
Fianlly, I think Phil is a long way from through, and at some he will be on that list. His talent is that good.
As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.
Clampett: Is confusion the leading cause of golfers quitting the game?
It seems that lately I’ve had a run of golfers attending my two-day Signature School with similar stories.
“Bobby, I have too many swing thoughts! I don’t know what I should think about when I swing.” Nearly without exception, these golfers tell me that their increased frustration had led to a deterioration of their game. It’s really a shame, because many of these frustrated golfers were at one time low, single-digit handicap players that had fallen to bogey-level golf.
In these schools, I have the time to start peeling back the onion with each student, and I’m hearing the same story over and over. My first question is always, “How did you find out about us?” Usually, it’s through referral or the result of an internet search for instruction help. My second questions is, “What do you hope to accomplish in our two days together?” They almost always respond, “Bobby, my head is spinning with too many swing thoughts. I don’t know what to do. Your approach to impact makes the most sense I’ve seen. That’s why I’m here.”
Statistics indicate that 4 million golfers quit the game in the United States every year. And if you polled each of these 4 million golfers, you’d find confusion to be the common denominator in their decision to quit.
I googled “golf instruction” and received more than 33 million results. Then I went to “YouTube” and typed in “Golf Tip.” There were 932,000 results. Scores of golfers get emails everyday suggesting a new thought or idea to improve their game. They watch television and pick up some more advice. They subscribe to golf magazines suggesting all kinds of ideas. Then they go to the range or course and put as much of it into action as their memories and bodies will allow… only to find it just doesn’t work! They’re farther away from playing good golf than they were when they began seeking out these swing fixes.
Many of my students are avid golfers who come to my schools on the brink of quitting the game all together. One student’s story was so sad. He confessed that no one at his club wanted to play with him anymore because his game had declined so sharply. He was considering selling his membership. In tears, he shared with us that all of his friends were members of his club.
Why is there all this confusion around the golf swing? There are two simple reasons.
The first involves the idea that “style-based” teaching is still the most common approach to improving a golfer’s game, and in my opinion, this doesn’t work very well for most golfers. Style-based instruction centers around a certain look. These teachers ask golfers to set up to the ball this way, get in these backswing positions, make this move on the downswing, look like this at the finish… and so on. Meanwhile, the Dustin Johnsons, Jim Furyks, and Bubba Watsons of the golfing world don’t possess golf swings that look anything like the “style” being suggested. When swing tips are given for “style” reasons, they’re arbitrary, a visual preference, and can’t be measured.
The second reason golfers are more confused today than they’ve ever been is the climate of today’s golf instruction world. We live in a new age, the digital age, and golfers are being bombarded by countless forms of media suggesting how to improve their games. These tips have a very wide range of theories and suggestions, most of which are conflicting.
Set up with your weight on the left foot. No, on the right foot. No, in the middle.
Have a short, compact swing. No, get a big shoulder turn for more distance. No, just swing around your body.
Finish high. No, finish low and left.
You get the picture. Without the ability to discern fact from fiction when it comes to all of this information, golfers go to the driving range in search of that secret pill that’s going to make it all work. The truth is that a secret pill that’s “style-based” just doesn’t exist. The best golf teachers know that the “style” of swing really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters in playing good golf is creating good impact. That’s what Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk and Bubba Watson all have in common, and that’s why they are all great golfers and great ball-strikers.
Good instructors understand what it is that these great players do to create that good impact, and they have the ability to offer clear remedies that might be built on only one or two simple thoughts. When a golfer is limited to thinking about only one or two key things, their mind is free and so is their swing. It’s not paralysis by analysis that ruins golfers, but rather paralysis by having too many needless and ineffective swing thoughts that ruins golfers.
Good instruction and good swing tips help golfers understand the impact their swing needs to create to be a good ball-striker. When a golfer’s impact isn’t good, a good instructor will help the student understand the specific element of their impact that wasn’t good and provide the appropriate remedy to fix it. Using today’s modern technology helps reveal precisely what was good or bad about a swing’s impact. After the remedy is given, technology will specifically be able to measure and show improvement in the various elements of impact. Game improvement can now be measured and verified by viewing the specific areas where impact is improved. When students see this measured improvement, hope is restored, confidence grows, scores drop and fewer golfers quit the game!
Be aware that it’s fine to read these articles and view these swing tips for their entertainment and educational value, but golfers should only apply the tips when they know they will help them improve a specific element of their impact. Then and only then will their game improve. One thing is for certain in golf, better impact equals better golf. That is where the “hope” of a good golf game is to be found.
The difference between “ugly” and “unorthodox” golf swings
I’d like you pretend for a moment that you were asked to name the five ugliest golf swings by players who had won a major championship. Who would you select, and what criteria would you use to make that judgment? You might say you’re not sure, but you would have no difficulty identifying an ugly swing if you were to see one, right? The question is, what factors would move you toward that decision?
I struggled with this exact question when it was posed to me and others who were members of Golf Magazine’s “Top 100” panel at the time. In making my decision, I was concerned that I did not confuse UNORTHODOX with UGLY. The fact is that some of the greatest golfers throughout history have been considered to have had unorthodox swings.
- The word “unorthodox” is defined as that which is contrary to what is usual, traditional or generally accepted.
- The word “ugly” is defined as that which is unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.
In comparing the two definitions, they are clearly quite different. The word “unorthodox” suggests something that is different from the norm, while the word “ugly” relates to the appearance of an object regardless of its status. The problem with labeling any golf swing as unorthodox is that the definition of that condition varies with time. What was once considered to be unorthodox may later be considered perfectly acceptable, and we’ve seen this happen over and over again in golf instruction.
Case No. 1
It was considered unorthodox when Harry Vardon moved his thumbs toward the top of the shaft and placed the little finger of his right hand over his left forefinger knuckle. The standard grip in his era featured both thumbs to the sides of the shaft. The club was held more in the palms of both hands and with all ten fingers, rather than more diagonally through the palm as in Vardon’s Grip. As Vardon began to win, however, his competitors copied his grip. What once was considered unorthodox became orthodox.
Case No. 2
Hogan and Nicklaus were paired together in the final round of the 1957 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The dichotomy between their backswings couldn’t have been more evident. This was due to the way in which they utilized their right elbows in the backswing. Nicklaus allowed his right elbow to work up and away, pointing more outward at the top. Hogan’s right elbow was closer to his body and pointed more downward.
At the time, Hogan’s backswing was considered orthodox while Nicklaus’ swing was considered unorthodox. As Hogan faded from the winner’s circle and Nicklaus began to emerge, what was once thought to be unorthodox later came to be considered orthodox.
There are some swings that most observers would agree are both unorthodox and ugly. For example, most observers would say that Jim Furyk’s swing is not pretty — they might even go so far as to categorize it as ugly. This is despite the face that Furyk has had an outstanding career and has a U.S. Open victory to his credit. What is it that observers find so offense in his swing? The answer is the differential in planes between the backswing and the downswing, or what might be referred to as a “loop” in his swing.
In Furyk’s case, the club is taken well outside what might be considered the traditional backswing plane. Then it is looped well to the inside and back into position on the downswing. This is is a perfectly acceptable way to play golf, which is evidenced by the size of his bank account and the number of trophies on his mantle. As you might surmise, because of his golf swing, Furyk has not been asked to write any full-swing instruction books.
The problem is that, in the eyes of the observer, the combination of the two distinctly different planes gives a disjoined appearance to the swing. Does it follow then that the variance in the backswing and downswing is the primary factor in determining if a swing qualifies as being ugly? The problem with reaching that conclusion is that it doesn’t hold up to comparison with other players who employ a similar pattern… beginning with Freddy Couples. He begins his swing by lifting his arms well outside the traditional plane line. With a delayed turn of his torso, he then brings the club back into a more traditional plane at the top.
In the case of both Couples and Furyk, their backswings operate well outside the traditional plane line with both players “looping” the club back into position prior to impact. And yet Couples’ swing is universally admired, while Furyk’s swing is in some quarters ridiculed. This begs the question of why Couples’ “looping” swing motion is considered more acceptable than Furyk’s. The answer to that question is two-fold.
- Furyk’s loop is created ostensibly by a change in plane with the arms and the hands, giving the swing a frenetic appearance.
- Couples’ loop is created with a graceful turn of his body with the arms following in perfect harmony.
And so, when taking the swings of Couples and other “loopers” into consideration, it would seem that the dramatic change in plane between the backswing and the downswing in and of itself does not warrant the classification of ugly.
Author Footnote: A point worth considering as part of this discussion is that there have been other accomplished players throughout the history of the game whose backswings have operated on the same principles as Couples. This would include perennial Champion’s Tour winners Kenny Perry, and earlier Jay Haas, whose swings were generally admired despite their unorthodox approach to the backswing.
What does this all mean? First, while a loop in the golf swing may be unorthodox, is not necessary considered ugly provided that the club is routed into plane with the turn of the body rather than just the arms and the hands. Second, as stated earlier, the definition of unorthodox can and does change depending on the era. And third, an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly. The two classifications are very different.
As you evaluate golf swings, remember this adage; an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly, but an ugly swing is always unorthodox.
TG2: Should Tiger Woods play in The Masters without a driver?
Tiger Woods’ No. 1 concern heading into the Masters is the driver, according to Notah Begay. Equipment expert Brian Knudson and Editor Andrew Tursky argue whether Tiger should even use a driver during the Masters. Also, they discuss Rory’s new prototype putter and how it was made, and they talk about a new shaft company called “LA Golf Shafts.”
Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
For more info on the topics, check out the links below.
- Rory’s putter: www.golfwrx.com/503976/rory-mcilr…rmade-soto-proto/
- Tiger’s driver: www.golfwrx.com/503940/tiger-wood…irms-notah-begay/
- LA Golf Shafts: www.golfwrx.com/503818/la-golf-pa…s-la-golf-shafts/
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