Assessing golfers from across different time lines is no easy task. But the fun in doing so makes for interesting discussions. Case in point. This week’s 147 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Golf’s oldest major is perpetually played on a links course. The intersection of unpredictability is often a given. The vagaries of the host course, the uncertain weather and the sheer luck of the bounce of ball are all elements golfers need to face and overcome in order to hoist the Claret Jug as “Champion Golfer of the Year.”
The skills and temperament needed to succeed in such a setting is monumental blending of physical skills and mental acuity.
The Open has been contested since 1860 and the game of golf has clearly evolved greatly from the earliest of times. Who have been the best links player at The Open in the post World War II time frame? A number of factors clearly must be weighed. Victories are no doubt important. But being a sustaining force in series of championships over the course of time and against the best of competition are all parts needing to be weighed carefully and ultimately decided upon.
#5 — BOBBY LOCKE (South Africa) / 1946-1957
The name Bobby Locke starts the roll call as a golfer who made his mark following the conclusion of World War II. Cited as the best putter of all time, the South African was an early standout in his home country. For 20 consecutive years Locke never lost a 72-hole tournament in South Africa. In a 16-match exhibition held at different courses in South Africa in 1946 against American sensation Sam Snead, Locke was victorious by the margin of 12-2-2.
Locke’s most notable triumphs came in only one major — The Open Championship but the impact he provided was considerable.
His first win came in 1949 at Royal St. George’s — where he routed Ireland’s Harry Bradshaw by 12 strokes in a 36-hole playoff. In 1950 he defended his title with a win at Royal Troon and in 1952 beat his main adversary at the time – Peter Thomson — by one stroke at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s. His final win would come at The Old Course at St. Andrews in 1957 but controversy took place at the final hole when Locke failed to correctly replace his marked ball on the final green. Needing only two putts from five feet to win, the R&A elected to allow the final outcome to stand when possible disqualification could have happened. One can only surmise what would happen if a similar situation were to occur in today’s global social media world.
During the period between 1946 and 1957– Locke won The Open four times, with seven top fives. In that period there were two years when he did not compete and only once during that time frame did he miss the cut.
Locke relished the opportunity to meet key challenges and at The Open he showed a remarkable resolve to raise his game to the highest level. But beyond the likes of Thomson — were the wins coming against inferior competition?
#4 — NICK FALDO (England) / 1982-1996
Although he is now a golf television commentator with CBS-Sports, Nick Faldo at his best was a extraordinary player. After retooling his game with David Leadbetter — the Englishman proved to be a formidable presence in The Open. His first win came with 18 consecutive pars in the final round to overcome American Paul Azinger at Muirfield. Three years later Faldo torched the Old Course with a 270 four round total. The highlight coming in the 3rd round when paired with Greg Norman. Faldo obliterated Norman with a 67 to the Aussie’s 76.
Two years after that win — Faldo once again triumphed at Muirfield. Trailing by two strokes to American John Cook with just four to play. Cook did stumble but what is often forgotten is how Faldo played the final four holes in two-under-par to snatch his 3rd and final Claret Jug.
During the 1982-1996 period beyond the three wins Faldo also placed 2nd once in 1993 behind Norman, had eight top five’s and 11 top tens with no missed cuts.
While Faldo was not as flamboyant as Spain’s Seve Ballesteros — the main differential is the overall consistency that the Englishman demonstrated over a considerable period of time.
#3 — JACK NICKLAUS (USA) / 1963-1980
A very hard call to make between 3rd and 2nd. The Golden Bear demonstrated superior consistency against the deepest of fields throughout the measured time frame. True, Nicklaus only won three Claret Jugs, but consider that he finished second seven times and only finished out of the top ten once during those 18 years. This include 15 top five placements with no missed cuts. In short, the Bear was always on the prowl. Among those Nicklaus bested who were clearly in their primes during that time frame included Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tony Jacklin, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf, to name just a few. One additional victory would have pushed Nicklaus to the runner-up position. Alas, golf’s greatest player has to settle for the bronze medal.
#2 — PETER THOMSON (AUSTRALIA) / 1951-1971
The recent passing of Peter Thomson on June 20 made many give pause to the extraordinary contributions this gifted man provided on so many levels. From 1951 to 1971 the Thomson golf file at The Open is utterly impressive. The Aussie claimed the title five times, with three in succession between 1954-56. His final triumph came in 1965 when Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were all competing in their prime. During that time frame Thomson made every cut and was only out of the top ten three times. In the period between 1952-58 he either won or came in second.
The downside to Thomson’s accomplishments were that the fields were not exactly top tier and often contained mediocre depth. There is no way to say for certain if American stars such as Sam Snead and Ben Hogan had competed in those years that they would have been as successful given their advancing ages. The American contingent was comfortable in remaining on its side of the pond until a golfer named Arnold Palmer reinvigorated the event with hits presence in 1960 at St. Andrews. Nonetheless, Thomson’s Open record speak for itself and cannot be easily dismissed.
#1 — TOM WATSON (USA) / 1975-1989
Tom Watson claims the top spot for one specific reason. At age 59 the man from Kansas City, MO nearly claimed a record tying 6th Open Championship. A victory at Turnberry would have meant a repeat win on the Ailsa Course — 32 years after his epic “Duel in the Sun” mano-a-mano with Jack Nicklaus. Even though Watson would fall to Stewart Cink in a playoff his near triumph still resonates to this day. Consider that the oldest man to have a major is Julius Boros at age 48 when winning the 1968 PGA Championship. No senior golfer has come remotely close to doing what Watson did and given the nature of today’s professional game featuring younger and younger stars the likelihood of something of that sort ever happening again is indeed remote.
During the time frame of 1975-1989 Watson had seven top five and eight top ten finishes. But what separates Watson is the top tier competition he beat time after time in earning five Claret Jugs. One other thing to keep in mind — foul weather did not impact Watson’s capacity to relish the challenge.
Even losing the ’84 Open to Seve Ballesteros at The Old Course at St. Andrews made for great theater. Watson wishes he had one mulligan to play when deciding to play a high risk 2-iron to The Road Hole during the final round.
Initially, Watson did not relish links golf when first exposed to it but his sheer grit and determination made him the champion golfer he became. If only that 8-iron approach to the 18th at Turnberry in ’09 had not bounced over the green. No matter. Watson earns the top spot.
HONORABLE MENTION …
Tiger Woods (USA) / 1998 to 2013
Three wins, six top fives, nine top tens along with just one missed cut are the statistics. But consider the highlights — winning by 12 shots in 2000 at The Old Course at St. Andrews and in the course of 72 holes never playing a shot from the numerous bunkers that dot the famed landscape. Fast forward to ’07 when Woods defended his title at Hoylake and in this event used his driver just once. His gifted long and middle iron play were beyond peer. The Woods who won three Claret Jugs by the age of 30 could have achieved far more if his skills were not compromised by numerous surgeries and personal issues. Can Tiger still add to his resume? Carnoustie could certainly be an epic storyline should Woods rekindle some of his past magic.
Seve Ballesteros (SPAIN) / 1976 to 1988
The superbly talented Spaniard who left this world too soon at age 54 was a maestro on the links. His skills at escaping from one pitfall after another displayed a gift few have ever seen in golf’s long history. In 1976 Ballesteros nearly claimed the championship at 19 and tied for second with Jack Nicklaus behind eventual winner Johnny Miller. Three years later he would capture the first of three Open wins at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s made famous by his ability to play from an adjoining car park. In 1984 the Spaniard upended Tom Watson down the stretch to win a classic battle at The Old Course at St. Andrews. His fist pumping exclamation with a final birdie at the closing hole is a golf moment seared in the memory banks.
Ballesteros would win his final Open in 1988 with a sterling final round 65 in overcoming a stiff challenge from Nick Price — again winning at Lytham. Links golf, at its heart, is being able to invent shots when others confine their thinking to ordinary efforts. Ballesteros conjured shots that made him golf’s Houdini.