No Way Statistics Can Cover the Variables
The world of statistics is vast, as we do our best to freeze into place precisely what an athlete has done against the competition of his or her own era. Statistics can even chart one’s excellence in competition with the self, and how one’s game has enhanced itself against recurring venues through the years. However, they cannot, much as we would like, compare greats from separate areas. We all have our candidates for “best ever” or something akin to it. However, the variables between eras is simply too overpowering to make it stick. Comparing Tiger Woods to Bobby Jones is an extreme example of the futility in the mine field of mismatched humans, equipment, venues, weather, distance, balls, greens, and what everyone had for breakfast. We can’t even make too much out of how fast someone attained a certain number of wins. Many more events are available now, and the commercial airline industry can get us there a lot faster than it used to. It can also ruin our sleep schedule.
If Bobby Jones is an impossible comparison, a Snead/Woods comparison isn’t much easier. At least Jack Nicklaus is one generation closer, but when I first followed Jack, he was still swinging clubs with wood-heads, and perfection of the sweet spot in club technology just wasn’t where it is today. Without a doubt, Tiger Woods is a candidate for “greatest ever.” I have the advantage of having watched the length of the Nicklaus and Woods careers, and I have had the “greatest ever” response to both of them. I was more or less sentient during the final years of Sam Snead, and was fascinated by him as a personalty. In fact, that’s what childhood and pro golf was about, hooking my brain up to models from the game. I had no idea of their statistics, didn’t compare them, but was in the moment at all times. I still don’t compare them statistically, and don’t need to settle that question. It’s the same way in every other sport. I thought Ali was the greatest, but I was also there. I missed Marciano and the rest.
In addition to the advent of metal head clubs, the sheer size of them is a big one for me. The older I get, the larger head driver I buy. Maybe that never becomes an issue for the pros, I don’t know. Hitting a ball into the mid-300 yard range was not much of a reality in the 40s and 50s. In the Snead years, they played many of the same courses they play now, and there is only so far back you can move the tees. I don’t know what went into the 82 tour wins harvested by Woods and Snead. I don’t know which 82 is “better.” What is important is that these men were, or were among the greatest of their day. True, there was a stretch in which Tiger was unstoppable, and it still impresses me that he can win anything at all, considering what he’s been through. He is insanely gifted. Snead could allegedly kick the ceiling with one foot when he was 70. To stay that limber would be nice, but I can’t imagine how he held onto his flexibility all those years – also insanely gifted.
Most of all, whether it was Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, Snead or Nelson, Jack, Arnie, Gary, or Tiger to Brooks, these are the men who keep the tour prospering. These are the symbols of excellence that keep children in the pursuit of trying to play like their heroes. For the spectator, they are the people who keep bringing out the gallery, and keep the TV screens on, especially on the weekends.
Comparing the Sneads, Woods and the others may make for a good drinking game, or round the barbecue pit debate. Fine, keep going, but you might as well face the fact that you can’t really make your case stick. Every sports fan in his own era has heard himself say “There’ll never be another one like this one” – but more often than not, there will be. Unbelievable as it may feel at the time, we can’t begin to guarantee even that. Who knows what our kids and grand-kids will see. Maybe by then, we’ll play golf with lasers, but the barbecue crowd will still be comparing their champions to Tiger, Jack, and Sam with the same futility that rules now.