That 70's Show
Players from golf's greatest generation don't begrudge today's stars, but they're proud of the genius that made their day so special
However old you happen to be, provided you're older than Rory McIlroy, one thing is certain. The athletes of your youth were better than they are now. Never mind that, in every sporting contest measurable by watch or yardstick, today's practitioners are running laughably ahead of yesterday's. Johnny Weissmuller's gold-medal swimming times in Paris (1924) and Amsterdam (1928) wouldn't impress an 8-year-old girl now.
So how can it possibly be true--in statistically precise but otherwise incalculable sports like baseball--that Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams or even Babe Ruth is still the ultimate ballplayer? Or that Jim Brown, Bobby Orr, Sugar Ray Robinson, Pelé or even Michael Jordan continues to be No. 1?
Golf, only superficially marked off by the foot and yard, has a dimension that means more than any of its cold numbers. Genius. Every one of the supporting actors in the Tiger Woods saga was bigger, stronger, longer and more athletic than Lee Trevino, but their combined genius quotients didn't amount to his. "He was good," Jack Nicklaus says. "He was very good. And he was smart. You know, I always thought Trevino and Ben Hogan were the two best ball-strikers I ever saw. And I think Trevino was a lot like Hogan in how he figured out a golf course and how to play it."
There was a time, before instructors swarmed golf like locusts, when every tour pro figured out a golf course and how to play it for himself. As a result, most of them were identifiable from three fairways over by their singular swings (see: Doug Sanders, Don January, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Hubert Green, Raymond Floyd, Miller Barber...) and recognized as professionalshotmakers who knew both how to play and how to win.
"How to play is right," Floyd says. "That's the key. You got it."
"We played golf," says Green. "Today's players just golf. It's a semantic distinction, but I think you know what I mean."
They had no choice but to win if they wanted to make a significant living on the PGA Tour. In Nicklaus' most prosperous year, 1972 (seven victories, including the Masters and U.S. Open), he earned a total of $316,911, roughly what 11th place paid in the 2012 FedEx Cup.
"You guys just don't know how to win," Captain Nicklaus scolded his Ryder Cup team between the closing ceremony and the dinner in 1987, when a second straight European victory flipped the balance of power. "How many matches were we leading going to 18 and didn't win them? Look at you, Payne Stewart. You make all this money on tour, but how many tournaments have you won? Why don't you win more? You guys need to learn how to win, or you're going to continue getting beaten in this thing."
"There wasn't any sugarcoating on it," Stewart said 12 years later. "I'll tell you, that speech was good for me." He promptly won the first of his three major titles in a heartbreakingly short career.
Could it be that golf had its own greatest generation, perhaps made up of those diverse and decorated individuals and characters who at least dipped a toe in the 1970s? Before the new golf ball and the age of titanium?
"Well, I guess everyone thinks their own generation was the best generation," Nicklaus says. "So, let's start with that premise, that I'm obviously partial because that's when I played. I don't want to be so presumptuous as to say it was better than today or better than before us, or whatever. But it was pretty good. It was a pretty good time. We had some pretty darn good players."
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The event in 1970 that had the most profound effect on golf might have been the death of Charlie Nicklaus at 56. It's a father's game. "When Dad died, I realized two things: how short life really is and how much I'd let him down," Jack says. "The last three years he was alive, I didn't work as hard as I should have. I just sort of went along, winning a bunch of tournaments but no majors. When I analyzed it, I could see that my dad had lived for me, for what I did. That was what he really enjoyed, what brought him his greatest pleasure. I sort of kicked myself in the rear end, got to work again and won the British Open."
Out from under Charlie's sway, "Fat Jack" retooled himself into a model for clothes and a mold for golfers--towheads shaped like 1-irons. For the rest of the decade, an avid golf fan was defined as anyone who could tell Johnny Miller from John Mahaffey from Ben Crenshaw from Bill Rogers from Jerry Pate. To separate himself, Pate took to jack-knifing into water hazards.
The litany of '70s saints only starts with Nicklaus, Trevino, Floyd, Green, Miller, Mahaffey, Crenshaw, Rogers, Pate, Gary Player, Billy Casper (the most under-praised great player in history), Gene Littler, Julius Boros, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Seve Ballesteros, Tony Jacklin, David Graham, Lanny Wadkins, Dave Stockton, Larry Nelson, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Weiskopf and their 82 major championships.
"Don't forget Palmer," Jack says. Eighty-nine. "He didn't have a major in there, but he was still playing and still very relevant."
"Arnold was the greatest of all," Floyd says, "the one who kicked off everything, really. He was the swashbuckler who showed television how to do it. I lost a playoff to Arnold in the '71 Bob Hope at Bermuda Dunes [Palmer won the same tournament two years later for his final victory on tour], and I can tell you, there weren't many people on my side." Almost including Raymond.
Arnold Palmer shows his flair in 1973, the year he earned the last of his 62 PGA Tour victories.
Photo: Augusta National/Getty Images
To Floyd, Palmer represents something valuable that is gone from the game. Or, if not entirely gone, at least diminished. "At my first Masters, I wore a pair of madras pants. 'C'mere a minute,' Arnold called me over in the locker room. 'Son, this isn't just another golf tournament,' he said. 'This is different. This is special. Wear a more respectful pair of pants tomorrow.' I did, the next day and from then on. Do you think anyone today would do that?"