The Big Three, Redux


It’s that time of year again. The golf media is engaged in inflating everyone’s hopes for a competitive PGA Tour by promoting the idea of “The Big Three.” Or the “Big Five”. Or whatever. Tiger, Phil, Vijay, Ernie, Sergio, Jim …

The latest perpetrator of this fraud is ESPN’s Ron Sirak. In a recent column, he writes:

There have been four Big Threes in the history of men’s golf. The first consisted of Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor, and, being British, they had the much classier handle of “The Great Triumvirate.” From 1894 through 1914—when World War I got in the way—they combined to win 16 of 21 British Opens.

Next came Hogan, Snead and Byron Nelson, who were born within six months of each other in 1912 and combined to win a phenomenal 198 tour events, including 21 majors.

Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player combined to win 159 PGA Tour events and a startling 34 majors—18 by Jack.

Sirak wants to include Woods, Mickelson and Singh in that list. At first glance it looks good. Combined, the three have 124 victories and 19 majors. But Woods accounts for 61—nearly half those victories, and has twice as many majors as the other two combined. Player and Palmer at least combined to exceed Jack’s total.

That’s not a Big Three. That’s a Big One and Medium Two. Tiger so completely dominates the current field, that no one can legitimately claim to stand with him on the podium.

I don’t think it’s a lack of skill on the part of the Medium Two. Sirak correctly points out, however, that raw numbers alone would make Mickelson one of golf’s greatest:

But for the fact Woods was born in December 1975, we would be hailing Mickelson as one of the greatest ever to play the game. And, in fact, he is. It’s just that his accomplishments have been lost in an extremely large Tiger-shaped shadow. Look at the numbers: Mickelson has won 32 PGA Tour events, including three major championships, and has had 11 multiple-win seasons. He is tied for 13th place with Horton Smith on the career victory list and is only seven wins from catching Tom Watson and Gene Sarazen for 10th all-time.

But he’s playing in the Woods era, and will forever be measured by that standard.

I’m also not convinced that—in spite of the now-vintage television show—Nicklaus, Player and Palmer ever were really a Big Three. Palmer was a transitional figure, wedged between the Hogan-Snead-Nelson era and Nicklaus. In that, Palmer stands alone.

The third of the Big Three’s, if ever there was one, was Nicklaus, and an ever-changing cast: first Palmer and Player, then Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, perhaps Curtis Strange. Jack always had a fresh set of challengers.

And that’s what’s lacking today. No one seems to have the mental fortitude to stand up to Tiger. Jack was no less fearsome, but there were players unwilling to concede, and with the game to back it up. Today’s pretenders to the throne have the game, but somehow seem content to let Tiger lead the way.


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