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Golden Golfers

The 10 best players from California

The Golden State can boast the one-two punch of Pebble Beach and Cypress Point, a knockout combination of two of the best courses in the world just down the road from each other on Monterey Peninsula’s 17-Mile Drive.

California also can go toe-to-toe with any state when it comes to the quality of its golfers. In fact, in Tiger Woods and Mickey Wright, California has produced arguably the greatest male and female players of all time. The rest of the state’s top 10 isn’t bad either, with a combined 53 majors among them. (Of course, Woods and Wright account for more than half.)

Given the climate and top courses, it’s no surprise so many great players hail from California. Some, like Woods and Wright, were born there. Others, like Amy Alcott and Mark O’Meara moved there when they were kids. But no matter their background, each player on the following list of the 10 best golfers from California has made an indelible mark on the golf world.

1. Tiger Woods
2. Mickey Wright
3. Phil Mickelson
4. Billy Casper
5. Juli Inkster
6. Johnny Miller
7. Gene Littler
8. Amy Alcott
9. Mark O'Meara
10. Lawson Little


1. Tiger Woods
There have been few off-center hits for Tiger Woods ever since he flushed a drive as a 2-year-old on the Mike Douglas Show. Woods has been the center of attention at nearly every event he has played, and he has relished golf’s biggest stages—the bigger the occasion, the brighter he has shone. Now, nearly every time he tees it up, it seems he is on the verge of a milestone or record. Next up: Sam Snead's PGA Tour victory mark of 82.

Few athletes have been as synonymous with a sport as Woods has been with golf—Babe Ruth and baseball, Muhammad Ali and boxing, Wayne Gretzky and hockey, Michael Jordan and basketball. For most around the world, Woods is golf, and vice versa.

Even if Woods retired tomorrow, he would go down as golf’s most dominant player. In just over a decade and a half, he has taken a sport in which parity had become the norm and established previously unthinkable standards for greatness. Along the way, Woods has re-introduced long-dormant terms like Grand Slam and Byron Nelson’s winning streak into golf’s everyday patois.

And the best part for those of us lucky enough to be witnesses: He is not finished.

Born: December 30, 1975
Major victories: 14
PGA Tour victories: 79
Other achievements: 3 consecutive U.S. Juniors, 3 consecutive U.S. Amateurs, 12 international wins, 7 Ryder Cup teams


2. Mickey Wright
Mickey Wright was only 34 when she retired in 1969. In addition to having accomplished everything in the game, she cited health and burnout from the pressure of being the face of women’s golf. “Everybody came out to see Mickey Wright play golf,” commentator and former player Judy Rankin said, “and then they discovered the rest of us.”

Wright grew up playing La Jolla Country Club, developing a swing that Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson considered the best ever. Certainly, few golfers have played at the level Wright did from 1961 to 1964. In those four seasons, she won 44 tournaments, including eight majors.

Her retirement mostly has been one of reclusion, adding to her myth and legend. She played several times afterward—even winning the 1973 Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle. But players still talk of her in reverent tones.

“She could have won 100 tournaments if she hadn’t quit early,” said Kathy Whitworth, who won 88 LPGA Tour events.

Born: February 14, 1935
Major victories: 13 
LPGA Tour victories: 82
Other achievements: 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior


3. Phil Mickelson
The most entertaining, exciting player since Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson has provided the golf world with some of its most thrilling victories as well as its most spectacular disasters. Few golfers have been blessed with as much talent as Mickelson, who honed his abilities, especially in the short game, on the backyard putting green of his family’s home in San Diego.

Mickelson displayed his skills early, winning the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as an amateur, as well as three NCAA Championships and the U.S. Amateur. In fact, his amateur record may have been as good as that of Woods.

Mickelson’s professional record isn’t shabby either, especially when examined outside of Woods’ considerable shadow. Mickelson finally won his first major in an exciting back-nine shootout against Ernie Els in the 2004 Masters. But for all his wins, Mickelson also has had some high-profile meltdowns, most notably a double bogey on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open to lose to Geoff Ogilvy by a shot.

Born: June 16, 1970
Major victories: 5
PGA Tour victories: 42
Other achievements: 1990 U.S. Amateur, 3 NCAA Championships, 9 Ryder Cup teams


4. Billy Casper
The fourth member of golf’s Big Three, Billy Casper actually won more events than Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Gary Player from 1964 to 1970. And only six players have more career PGA Tour victories. In addition, Casper is the most decorated American Ryder Cupper ever, with 23.5 points.

But Casper, who grew up caddying at San Diego Country Club, didn’t have the charisma of his more famous peers. What he did have was a consistent swing and one of the game’s best putting strokes. The perfect example of both Casper’s low profile and subtly brilliant game was the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic. While everybody remembers Palmer’s collapse—he lost a seven-shot lead with nine holes left—fewer people remember that it was Casper who won, and that in order to catch Palmer, he had to shoot 32 on Olympic’s difficult back nine.

Born: June 24, 1931
Major victories:
PGA Tour victories: 51
Other achievements: 1983 U.S. Senior Open, 9 Champions Tour wins, 8 Ryder Cup teams, 1979 Ryder Cup captain


5. Juli Inkster
Growing up along the 14th hole at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Juli Inkster worked there as a teenager and developed her game on the Alister MacKenzie design. That background definitely helped Inkster (nee Simpson) develop the shots she needed to win three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs, from 1980 to 1982.

She then won two majors in 1984 as a rookie. Her career stalled in the mid ’90s as she and her husband, Brian, started a family, but in 1999 she matched her rookie feat of two majors by winning the LPGA Championship and her first U.S. Women’s Open, the trophy she had been coveting for nearly 20 years. Inkster won a second Open in 2002, cementing her place among the greatest female players ever.

Inkster, who lives in Los Altos, where Brian is director of golf at Los Altos Golf and Country Club, is still a regular at Pasatiempo, less than an hour down the road.

Born: June 24, 1960
Major victories:
LPGA Tour victories: 31
Other achievements: 7 Solheim Cup teams


6. Johnny Miller
No player hit it more consistently close to the hole as Johnny Miller in his prime. Born and raised in San Francisco, Miller was a junior member at the Olympic Club, and the tight layout no doubt helped him develop the accurate iron game that was his hallmark.

From the 1973 U.S. Open to the 1976 British Open, his two major wins, Miller was the best player in the game, with 16 victories. But more than the victories, Miller’s genius can be measured by his ball-striking. Golf may be a game of managing one’s bad shots, but Miller rarely missed during this period. During one three-month stretch in 1975, he said his iron shots were an average of five feet off line.

He fired at nearly every flag, leading to some low scores, including one of the greatest rounds in golf history. His 63 in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at difficult Oakmont set a new scoring mark for major championships, one that has been tied but not lowered since.

Born: April 29, 1947
Major victories: 2
PGA Tour victories: 25
Other achievements: 1964 U.S. Junior, 2 Ryder Cup teams


7. Gene Littler
Gene Littler was the laid-back Californian, enjoying a longevity matched by few: His final PGA Tour victory, the 1977 Houston Open, came 23 years after his first, the 1954 San Diego Open in his hometown. Littler, who grew up playing with Billy Casper, won that first event as an amateur, setting a standard that fellow San Diegan Phil Mickelson would match 37 years later when he won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open as an amateur.

Nicknamed “Gene the Machine” for his simple, efficient action, Littler had a swing that was the envy of his fellow players. Gene Sarazen once said his motion was “a perfect swing like Sam Snead’s—only better.”

In 1977 Littler nearly became the second-oldest major winner in history at the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach. Leading by four shots after three rounds, Littler shot 76 then lost to Wadkins in the first sudden-death playoff in a major championship.

Born: July 21, 1930
Major victories: 1
PGA Tour victories: 29
Other achievements: 1953 U.S. Amateur, 8 Champions Tour wins, 7 Ryder Cup teams


8. Amy Alcott
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Amy Alcott was just 6 months old when her family moved to Los Angeles. And Alcott was just 10 when she went for her first lesson with legendary area instructor Walter Keller, who would refer to her as “a racehorse.”

Like a thoroughbred, Alcott approached golf at full gallop. At age 13, she set up a practice ground in her yard, putting and chipping to soup cans buried in the grass; she even had sand for a bunker. The house was known as Alcott Golf and Country Club, and Alcott, the president, would even give neighbors membership cards.

This dedication led to early success on tour: At age 19, she won the 1975 Orange Blossom Classic in just her third start. She won five majors, but the most memorable was the 1988 Nabisco Dinah Shore, a victory she celebrated by diving into the lake by the 18th green. Tournament host Shore joined Alcott in the plunge three years later, starting one of golf’s great traditions.

Born: February 22, 1956
Major victories: 5
PGA Tour victories: 29
Other achievements: 1973 U.S Girls’ Junior


9. Mark O'Meara
Thus far in the Tiger era, only two players other than Woods have been named player of the year. One was Vijay Singh in 2004; the other was Mark O’Meara in 1998, the year he won the Masters and British Open.

O’Meara, who grew up in Mission Viejo and attended Long Beach State, won the 1979 U.S. Amateur and had enjoyed a successful but hardly spectacular career by the time he turned 40. But that was when fellow Orange County native Woods moved across the country into the Isleworth community outside Orlando, Florida, where O’Meara had been living for years.

Inspired by his new friend and travel, practice and playing partner, then 41-year-old O’Meara became the oldest first-time Masters winner in ’98, and Woods put the green jacket on him at the awards ceremony. His win in the British Open three months later made “Marko,” as Woods refers to him, the only player other than Woods to win multiple majors in a season since 1994.

Born: January 13, 1957
Major victories: 2
PGA Tour victories: 16
Other achievements: 1979 U.S. Amateur, 8 international wins, 5 Ryder Cup teams


10. Lawson Little
One of the least known yet greatest feats in golf history belongs to Lawson Little, who won the U.S. and British Amateurs in both 1934 and ’35. A long hitter, Little overpowered both the course and his opponents. After turning pro in 1936, Little won the 1940 U.S. Open. But Little’s place in history is secure due to his unprecedented amateur feat, which prompted longtime golf chronicler Charles Price to write: “Lawson Little was the greatest match player in the history of golf.”

The son of a U.S. Army officer, Little first played golf in Tianjin, China, where his father was stationed, before refining his game at San Francisco’s Presidio. Little also holds a special place in golf history for being largely responsible for the USGA’s institution of the 14-club rule in 1938. Little carried as many as 26 clubs—among them seven wedges—in his bag.

Born: June 23, 1910
Died: February 1, 1968
Major victories: 1
PGA Tour victories: 8
Other achievements: 1934, ’35 U.S. Amateur; ’34, ’35 British Amateur

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Feedback

  1. Ken Venturi?

    — Allen Tulgan · Friday December 6, 2013 ·

  2. Your research department missed one that should of probably replaced Lawson Little.

    Ken Venturi…
    14 PGA tour event winner
    US Open Champion
    2x California State Amateur

    Major impact in the Golf Broadcasting business

    — J. Norman · Friday December 6, 2013 ·

  3. Ken Venturi?

    — William Kee · Friday December 6, 2013 ·

  4. Try the same analysis with Texas !

    — J. DeLeon · Friday December 6, 2013 ·

  5. George Archer!

    — Dr. Chuck Diakon · Friday December 6, 2013 ·

  6. Ken Venturi was a great player, but I can see where he would not quite fit into this top ten.
    Also, anyone (J. Norman) who says “should of” instead of “should have”, reliquishes his right to vote or comment.

    — Warren Bradley · Tuesday December 31, 2013 ·



 


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