No matter the sport, the same debate always ensues. Who was the best of all time, across every era?
Golf faces a peculiar challenge in this regard. It's not just that the fields have gotten stronger generally, but the equipment has changed, too. And the courses along with it. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead are undoubtedly two of the best golfers of all time whose names often—and rightfully—arrive in this conversation. But how can we truly estimate how good those players would fare against, say, Tiger Woods, when without a firm grasp of how far they drove the ball with the tools they did have?
Sadly, stat-tracking capabilities weren't much of a thing back in their primes. Various golf historians have done a good job piecing together anecdotes and slivers of data from the time to help paint a picture, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better snapshot then a Golf Digest-USGA study from the May 1953 edition, which I stumbled across while perusing the Golf Digest archive last week (you can deep dive into it yourself right here).
1953, for some context, represented one of the best years of Ben Hogan's career: He won all three majors he played. Snead won three total events that year, and eight official PGA Tour victories in all between 1952 and 1954—including two green jackets. He was still very much one of the game's best players.
The study, conducted by Robert Trent Jones, measures every player's drive during the third round of the 1953 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
The study took place on the 18th hole.
"I tried to select a hole which would be most feasible for the purpose and which would bring out the true character of the normal hitting of the country's finest golfers," Trent Jones writes.
He admits the hole was "not ideal," because the tee box is elevated slightly and the wind, which was blowing straight downwind, ranged from "3.4 miles per hour to as high as 14 miles per hour" which helped golfers gain approximately "5 to 8 yards."
Nevertheless, Trent Jones settled on the 18th because of its wide landing area, and length forcing every pro to hit driver.
You can see the full results below, but the driving distance average for the 59 players was 240 yards of carry, and 261 yards in total. (Eleven players failed to hit the fairway.)
- 300+ yards: 1 drive
- 300-290 yards: 2 drives
- 270-260 yards: 19 drives
- 260-250 yards: 16 drives
- <250 yards: 10 drives
The drives for Hogan and Snead specifically are below. Both ended above the field average, and Snead hit one of the longest drives of the day (though had slightly more wind helping him than most)
- Ben Hogan: 258 yards (carry) 266 yards (total)
- Sam Snead 270 yards (carry) 290 yards (total)
The PGA Tour average driving distance last season was just over 299 yards. Taking the almost 40-yard distance difference, some (very) unscientific estimates would suggest that Snead, in the modern era, would be one of the very longest players on tour. Something akin to the Rory McIlroy, Cam Champ 320-yard range.
Hogan probably would be an elite ball striker with slightly-above-average distance, similar to perhaps Corey Connors or Matt Fitzpatrick in terms of distance. There is other evidence that Hogan would be an even longer driver than that, though. Again, not scientific, just a quick estimation based on these specific findings.
As for how they'd both fare against the current greats of the game? We'll leave that up for debate.
You can read the full article in the archive here.