In previous editions of our Generations articles, we’ve traced the different eras of both the NBA and Tennis. In doing so we used examples of players whose careers spanned several eras over the course of 15 to 20 years where they were still one of the best players in the world. I think this allowed us to draw evidence of how strong the eras were .We could use those examples to deduct some how players like Wilt Chamberlin or Ken Rosewall might have performed in the 1990’s and beyond.
In golf, however, there really isn’t a need to fantasize about such a hypothetical exercise. We actually get to see oldsters compete with the current generation into their 60’s in several of the majors. Golf is the kind sport that can allow players to remain competitive into their 40’s. Some of the greats can even put it together for a weekend as we have seen with both Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson into their late 50’s. Bernhard Langer remained competitive into his early 60’s. What is perhaps the most impressive is these were players that transitioned through a massive driver change in equipment as well.
Nicklaus was able to finish T6th at the Masters in 1998 at the age of 58. That was two spots higher than Tiger Woods who was already number 1 in the world the year after he destroyed the Masters field winning his first in 1997. Tiger would miss the cut the year Tom Watson finished 2nd in the Open Championship at the age of 59. There are these examples of the legends competing in golf in the majors but all that really shows is that a in golf a player can put it together for 4 rounds. There are numerous examples of this. Can you imagine 60 year old John McEnroe finishing in the Quarterfinals or Finals? It’s obviously a different sport.
Where do believe we can draw a better comparison of the eras is how long some of the legends remained highly ranked. Unfortunately, there are several factors that make this more difficult than in the NBA or Tennis. Golf had its own split-open era of sorts to deal with, and the official world golf rankings didn’t come about until much later in 1986. The Champions Tour also cipher off golfers that could still compete on the PGA tour. It gives them a home where they can make easier money. There have been a few players for example like Phil Mickelson who were still top 40 players in the world after 50 and capable of winning majors as he did at nearly 51. If they aren’t at quite the top 50 level most 50 year olds elect to play mostly on the senior tour which is understandable. Many were still capable of being top 100 in the world some years my estimation after 50 years old, especially had they played week to week. Some like Nicklaus, Watson, and Norman were top 250 in the world only playing 5 or less touraments but all with massive finishes in their 50’s.
The 1st Offical World Golf End of Year Rankings 1986
I think we have to start with the Golden Bear. His career highlights span from finishing 2nd at the 1960 US Open as the low amateur to as we mentioned 6th at the masters in 1998. While there are no official rankings Nicklaus finished 3rd in the PGA money list in 1962. We can assume he was already a top 5 player by that point. He would go on to dominate most of the rest of the 1960’s and 1970’s As you can see in 1986 he was still 22nd ranked at the end of the year. His decent ranking was 1998 finishing the year 216th while playing 6th tournaments off the strength of his Masters finish.
According to Mark McCormack’s unofficial rankings from 1968 to 1985 Nicklaus finished #1 from 1968-1977.
Tiger Woods has been as dominant as anyone not named Jack Nicklaus. It’s really only injuries that have kept him from continuing to dominate. He won his first major in 1997 and his last in 2019 before suffering a major setback in a car accident as we all know. Tiger finished the season ranked 1st in the world 12 out of 13 years in one stretch. Only Vijay Singh unseated him in the middle of his domination. Tiger has 13 end of year finishes at 1st and three more finishes at 2nd, and one at 3rd. There will likely never be another streak of domination like this. It’s such a remarkable feat considering many of these years he was barely playing a full schedule.
Phil may be a pariah in the game now, but it was just 2 years ago that he won a major at nearly 51 years of age and finished the year 33rd in the world. He has had a consistent career. First cracking the top 10 end-of-year rankings when Ace of Base was big, he was a fixture through much of the 2000’s. I would have liked to see how he competed last year without all the LIV drama fall out distractions. I still believe Phil had some more left in the tank but it may never happen now.
First making his appearance in the top 5 in 1983 he dominated the top spot in the early years of the official world golf rankings. Impressively he was still #1 when Tiger Woods burst onto the scene and rose to 2nd place in 1997.
Langer’s dominance of the champion’s tour is unquestioned. It’s almost a shame we don’t get to see him more competing with the best in the world. I have to believe he would have had some top finishes the last 15 years even at his advanced age he can still compete with players much younger than him on the champions tour.
Gary Player won his first Major in 1959 at 23 years old and his last in 1978 at 42. There is no rank for the 1950’s offically. McCormack had Player ranked 5th as late as 1979.
I wish we had rankings for Sam Sneed. He first lead the PGA money list in 1938. He was sill finishing top 10 in the PGA Championship in 1972, 1973, 1974 as well as four other top 30 finishes in the other majors well into his 60’s. Sneed would help tie the era before WW2 together. Even without the rankings it’s clear he could play with anyone into the 1960’s and early 70’s.
Just from the extended periods of winning and relavance many of the greats had over the span of decades. I find it hard to believe players from every era of golf couldn’t compete. Even though it’s harder to find tie ins pre world wars with a lack of ranking system I do believe golfers in the early 20th century could have still competed for the most part if they had similar equipment. The fact Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson played so well at times in the 50’s even after an equipment change there is little doubt they could have adjusted well before in their prime. I think it would be similar for any of the legends of the game. Hogan, Sneed, Jones,, Hagen, Sarazen etc.