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Playing the Percentages

By: George Peper

Appeared in March 2004 LINKS

There’s something I’ll bet you haven’t been losing much sleep over. A couple months ago Tiger Woods turned 28—the same age Bobby Jones was in 1930, the year Jones won the Grand Slam

While that may strike you as a casual coincidence, it’s apparently fodder for television, or so CBS hopes. They’ve asked me to write a script for a show called “The Quest for the Slam,” scheduled to air just prior to weekend coverage of the Masters.

All of which has me spending entirely too much time contemplating major championships, legendary careers and impregnable quadrilaterals. I have, however, reached clarity on one issue that had always bugged me—the question of how to rank the game’s best players.

Heretofore there have been two basic schools of thought. The most widely accepted says it’s all about the majors—the more wins in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA a player can amass, the cushier spot he rates in the game’s pantheon. The other school argues that a few targeted victories in the big ones is not enough, that it’s about sustained excellence over time and space, and that total wins—major and otherwise—is the only true measurement of a player.

Well, they’re both wrong. Granted, you need a certain number of majors—as well as a certain number of wins of any kind—even to be considered for the game’s top ranks, but those numbers alone don’t tell the story. A third element is needed, in this writer’s opinion—namely the percentage of victories that are major championships.

Playing the Percentages Table

Please check out the series of tables above that I’ve compiled—I mean, I did spend a good four hours assembling them for your benefit! They rank 13 players according to three sets of criteria. The 13 qualified by winning either a minimum of 40 PGA Tour events or, failing that, a minimum of seven major championships. (My apologies go to Roberto De Vicenzo and Jumbo Ozaki, each of whom has jillions of victories worldwide but no U.S. wins; to John Ball, with nine majors but eight of them British Amateurs; to Old and Young Tom Morris; to the Great Triumvirate of Vardon, Braid and Taylor; and to the Pretty Damned Good Triumvirate of Trevino, Faldo and Ballesteros. None of you guys made the final cut. But face it, fellas, with the exception of Old Harry, you weren’t gonna make anyone’s top-10 roster, anyway.

The first box ranks players according to their major championships, with Nicklaus securely at the top, Jones in second, etc. (Per the generally accepted policy, I awarded Bobby his five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur but didn’t give Jack, Arnie and Tiger their combined six U.S. Am’s because those events were thought of as majors during the first third of the 20th century but not during the last two-thirds.) Billy Casper and Cary Middlecoff bring up the rear with three majors apiece. Note: I’ve ascribed points to this ranking, the number of points equaling twice the player’s rank.

The same double-point system was applied to box No. 2, which ranks players according to their total victories. Sam Snead sits firmly on top, followed by the Golden Bear, the Hawk, the King and Lord Byron. Bobby Jones, even with all those grandfathered Amateurs, comes in last.

Now let’s look at the box I think is the most telling—the percentage of victories that are major championships. Wee Bobby makes the comeback of the century from last to a dominant first with 56.5 percent, while the feisty Gary Player leapfrogs from next-to-last to second. There’s a sizeable gap down to Walter Hagen in third with a one-out-of-four record, then Jack at just under 25 percent, Tiger and Tom Watson at just over 20 percent and the rest. I did not double the points for this element since it essentially grows out of the other two lists.

The result of these three evaluations is the final box at the right, where the ranking points are totaled. (In keeping with the spirit of golf, low score is best.) Take a look at how our baker’s dozen stacks up here, compared to any of the three previous boxes. In my view, this is the most legitimate ranking, with the names shaking out just about as one would expect:

Nicklaus In his rightful position atop the heap, with a sizeable lead on number two. Who can argue this? Jack’s won the most majors and the second-most titles, with a nearly 25 percent majors performance.

Hogan Believed by many to be the second- or third-best player in history—with a few Texas diehards still swearing he’s number one. They cite Ben’s auto accident and the World War II hiatus and ask what might have been. Sorry, but late-blooming Ben didn’t win his first title until 1940 at age 27—at that age Tiger had 39 wins. Frankly, I’m not sure Hogan deserves to rank higher than third or fourth, but I’ll look the other way simply because this is my point system and I’m partial to it.

Hagen The guy who may be the most underrated player ever finally gets his due. Forty-four wins, with 11 of them majors—and he had only three to work with because he competed in so few Masters. The Haig has one record that may never be broken—he won professional majors in six straight years.

Snead Fourth place is perfect for Sam. Nobody won more events, nobody lost more majors. I did some quick math and if he had closed the deal on just three of those half-dozen or so U.S. Opens he frittered away, he’d be sitting in a strong second place on my rankings. But he didn’t.

Jones Bobby Jones apologists won’t like seeing their lad this far down the list, but I say he’s about where he should be. Listen, I love everything about Bobby, even the fact that he left the stage at age 28—in fact, I may love that most of all. That said, he shouldn’t get credit for quitting. An eight-year career does not a top-four ranking earn.

Palmer Number one in our hearts, but not a top-five guy. Despite his charger image, Arnie didn’t convert the big ones as often as he should have. He fits nicely at No. 6 all-time, although if you threw Vardon into the mix, Arnie might well be lower.

Player Depending on how you look at this, Gary is either very lucky to rank this high (considering he has only two dozen PGA Tour victories—22 players rank ahead of him in that category) or absolutely deserving, as a guy who knew how to turn his opportunities into victories.

Watson and Woods They’re the two best players of the last 25 years, but the career of TW 1 is over while TW 2 may be just reaching his prime. If, over the next seven years, Tiger can equal his output of the first seven, he’ll have 78 wins and 16 majors—all by the age of 34. Feed those numbers into my computer and he’d have 13 ranking points, in second place, just a whisker behind Jack, who would then have 12.

Sarazen Gene, like Hagen, played competitively in only a few Masters, but did manage to win one, and he, Nicklaus, Hogan, Player and Woods may deserve extra credit for winning all four majors. But I’m comfortable with Sarazen at No. 10.

Nelson Despite his magnificent 1945 season, Byron is seen as the Rodney Dangerfield of professional golf. Well, his 9.6 percent major performance shows why—he won a lot of events, but not nearly enough big ones.

Casper Like Nelson, Buffalo Billy is continually referred to as the most underrated player in history. Is 12th-best an underestimate? Not when, among his 51 wins, only three are majors.

Middlecoff Someone had to be last, and once again, it’s the paltry percentage of majors that tells the tale. Besides, who better to fill things out than a dentist?

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