Which is the Great Generation?

Generational Competition is Nonsense, But I’ll Weigh in on the Great Ones

I have always been offended, if sometimes only slightly, by generational comparisons of men’s golf.  Women are more inclined to revere their former greats. At other times, I am more than a little offended. It is as though a casual observer of one era takes the accomplishments of previous eras, diminishes them and puts a big “Yeah, but…” in front of the names of the great players. The wave of an amateur hand practicing faulty science, and one’s decade or century is belittled, or put on the back shelf as “quaint.” This is accomplished by a host of flawed, speculative, and biased criteria, with an absurd assumption thrown in that the most recent generation is naturally the most advanced one. Newcomers to the game tend to believe that even the greats of thirty years ago represent some sort of professional missing link – pure baloney.

It was Ernie Els who helped me to notice the assumption that the present leaders on tour are the best ever. I have trouble wrapping my head around Tiger being a distant ancestor, making the generation before his downright mythological.  Anything before that is best left up to paleontologists who study the bones of hickory shaft clubs, feathered balls and tee mounds. Els believes that Tiger playing well validates his generation. Is that really a question that sane people ask? No one has convinced me among the newest wave that we have yet seen his like, or anything close to it. People who have lived only through the recent decade have no real perspective for such comparison, but I have heard them make it based solely on the fact that the older athletes’ film is old and grainy. Therefore, no way could Abdul-Jabar, Ali or Nicklaus compete today – again, baloney.
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the constantly improving flow of generations is not a given. We’re not talking about putting a man on the moon. We’re talking golf, and today’s great players tried their best to study with the coaches who coached the past stars. Jones and Hogan taught them. Stradivarius is still the way to go, not some computer perfected facsimile. I am absolutely certain that if we were to take the top 20 of each generation, give them equality in all things, including modern swing analysis and conditioning, we would have winners from 1900 to the present. Jones and Hagen could watch for two weeks, and antique swings would become things of modern beauty. Our “yeah buts” would go out the window. With modern preparation and technology accompanying the highly accomplished history of the swing (Jones, Hogan, Jack, etc), Bobby Jones, Sam Snead or Byron Nelson, any of the big three, Tiger or Spieth could win this year’s Masters. Great was great then, and it is great now, if we make all other things equal. It is also apparent that the Spieths, McIlroys and a dozen or so other moderns would succeed historically.

Computer nerds and sports nuts have tried to create this equality through intense, detailed programming and interaction of known statistics. They have even pulled actual blow-by-blow competitions out of their imaginations, and put them to hypothetical broadcasts by famous sportscasters. We should try it, if only to appease the generationalists with some tangible if fictitious scenario. Or, perhaps match play would be more interesting. Hagen versus Day? Player and Rory? Couples versus Sarazen? In every case, great to great would make excellent viewing.

Of one thing I am certain. The “latest is best” theory has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. If you want to claim that you’re better than Nicklaus or Tiger, spare me the talk until you’ve done what they’ve done. And, don’t think for a moment that vintage Nicklaus or Tiger couldn’t clean anyone’s clock with at least some regularity, all else being equal. Unless you were there, don’t even offer an argument. Older folks have seen them all. Now, can we please render unto Caesar and all that, and enjoy the great golfers of today without messing it all up with yesteryear?

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