March 23, 2009

Golfers Encyclopedia Is Food For Thought

Some would argue golf is a ball against a blue sky, a foursome that goes back 20 years or a quick nine before dark when the shadows are almost as long as a par 3. In the pro game, though, you are what you shoot, and when the roars recede, the records remain.

The PGA Tour has kept watch on statistics since 1980, and in the last few years ShotLink has sliced and diced the numbers with the power of a Pentagon supercomputer. But compared to other sports, golf has always lacked an all-encompassing reference book. With the publication of The USA Today Golfers Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Modern Professional Golfers and Tournaments by Sal Johnson and Dave Seanor (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95), it has a good beginning.

Within the 960 pages, Johnson and Seanor detail the last 50 years with the playing records of more than 1,500 golfers who made a minimum of 25 PGA Tour starts and the top 10 finishers in every one of more than 2,300 events from 1958-2008. The authors provide a brief summary of what happened in the majors and a couple of other tidbits prior to each year's tournament summaries. They didn't crunch the numbers to offer any kind of statistical analysis by year, which would have made the volume stronger. Still, a golf junkie can pore over the data to see how things have changed.

I went through six years—1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008—to compute the average length of tour courses and the average winning score for 72-hole events. The results:

19586,734 yards10.20 under

19686,885 yards11.34 under

19786,973 yards10.93 under

19886,959 yards14.45 under

19987,025 yards14.36 under

20087,257 yards12.71 under

Final-round scores by winners haven't varied much. Winners in 1958 averaged 68.82; in 1978 it was 68.30 (although in a 16-tournament stretch that year, the winner shot 67 or better 10 times); in 2008 it was 68.33. The average PGA Tour course is 523 yards longer now than it was 50 years ago, and holes routinely are located in tighter spots, but those factors are negated by better equipment and firmer fairways. In 1958, 1968 and 1978, only one winner per year finished at 20 under or lower in a 72-hole event. In 1988, a few years into the metal-wood era, seven tournaments were won with scores of 20 under or better. Longer courses seem to have had an effect in 1998 and 2008, when only two and four events, respectively, were won at 20 under or better.

The dominance of the top players comes through the fine print. Jack Nicklaus, in the top 10 in 49 percent of his starts; Tiger Woods, in 64 percent of his; Ben Hogan, with 297 starts, in the top 10 in 229 of them, for 77 percent. I was surprised but pleased to see that Johnny Palmer, the golfer whose name was on the first set of clubs I owned, had top-10 finishes in 45 percent of his 290 starts. But a player had to finish that high to make ends meet in those days. In 1958, 10th place often paid less than $1,000. The inaugural Westchester Classic in 1967 offered $50,000 to the winner, $15,000 more than any other stop that year. Think purse money wasn't a motivating force then? Nicklaus won that week, and the top 10 included Roberto De Vicenzo, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Doug Sanders, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Lee Trevino, Frank Beard and Bob Charles.

Among the player summaries, there is something for everyone. My top-five names: Gene Bone, Bunky Henry, Wren Lum, Moon Mullins and Steve Spray. Sadly, some careers are too short. Although the book doesn't include bios, it was impossible to miss a quintet of players who died much too young: Jeff Julian, Tommy Moore, Gary Sanders, Taylor Smith and Payne Stewart.

Plenty of tournaments are no more, among them the Azalea Open, a spring event held in Wilmington, N.C., in the 1950s and 1960s. I reviewed the Azalea agate trying to imagine which year a sportswriter I knew in his later years got himself in a bind. Having smelled the flowers too vigorously one day, he realized he wasn't in any shape to file a story. He asked a fellow reporter to cover for him, which would have solved the problem, except that he wasn't done drinking—or looking for pinch-hitters. By the end of the night, the paper had to decide which of four stories it was going to run. Now, that is a stat for the ages.