'Big Threes' in Golf Over the Years

2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy is part of golf's newest power triumvirate. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy is part of golf's newest power triumvirate. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

Over the past year, a developing topic in men’s professional golf has been the emergence of another “Big Three” in the game. This certainly seems justified given the 2015 season that saw Jordan Spieth, 22, Jason Day, 28, and Rory McIlroy, 27, win a collective 12 tournaments and three major championships and finish the year first, second and third respectively in the Official World Golf Ranking.

The trio’s play early in 2016 has not only backed up that collective title, but has further separated them from the field. Day has arguably had the best year of the triumvirate, winning three times, highlighted by a four-stroke victory in the Players Championship, while leapfrogging Spieth for the top ranking. McIlroy already has five top-five finishes, including a victory in the the Irish Open. And while Spieth was undoubtedly disappointed in his runner-up finish in the Masters, he started the year with an eight-stroke victory in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and picked up a second win last week in the Dean & Deluca Invitational.

All this got the staff at the USGA Museum thinking: who have been some of the other notable “Big Threes” in golf over the years?

Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid

The three leading golfers in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were all from Great Britain. Vardon (right), Taylor (left) and Braid (second from right) combined to win 16 Open Championships between 1894 and 1914. And on the five occasions that one of them did not win, at least one of them finished runner-up.

Vardon made multiple tours of the U.S. to play in exhibition matches and promote his Vardon Flyer golf ball. He also won the 1900 U.S. Open and finished runner-up in 1913 and 1920. In total, Vardon won  The Open Championship six times, finished runner-up four times and logged 15 top-five finishes. Taylor and Braid both won five Open Championships and finished in the top 10 in 17 consecutive years, Taylor between 1893 and 1909 and Braid between 1896 and 1912.

Bob Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen

When 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open, shocking Vardon and Ted Ray, it launched a half-century in which Americans arguably dominated the game at its highest level. Hagen (left) finished tied for fourth that year and Jones and Sarazen, both just 11 years old, anxiously awaited newspaper reports of the championship’s results and later said that Ouimet’s win inspired them to pursue competitive golf.

Jones (right) remained an amateur throughout his career, amassing 13 major championship victories between 1923 and 1930, including the Grand Slam, before retiring from competition at age 28. Hagen and Sarazen combined for 18 major championships victories and finished in the top five 44 times between 1914 and 1936.

Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead

Born just months apart in 1912, Hogan (right), Nelson (left) and Snead were instrumental in growing the game of golf in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In very different ways, they set the standard for professional golf. These self-taught men from humble backgrounds became the dominant players in golf for more than three decades, winning a combined 21 major championships and 198 official PGA Tour events. In 1945 and 1946 alone, they combined for 54 victories and three of the five major championships played – the schedule was shortened due to World War II.

Hogan was nearly killed in a horrific automobile accident in February 1949, but returned to claim the U.S. Open title in 1950. Despite playing a limited schedule following the accident, Hogan had his best years in the early 1950s, including wins in five of the six events he entered in 1953. In 1945, Nelson won 11 consecutive tournaments and the following year retired from competitive golf. His elegant and rhythmic swing was the basis for “Iron Byron,” the machine that was used to test golf balls and clubs at the USGA Research and Test Center from 1972 to 1999. Snead won a record 82 official PGA Tour events in a career that spanned nearly half a century. He recorded his first win in 1936 and finished tied for third in the 1974 PGA Championship at age 62.

Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus

Perhaps the best-known “Big Three” in golf, if not all of sports, was Palmer (left, next to President Gerald Ford), Player (right) and Nicklaus (second from right). With their rise coinciding with the advent of televised golf, the game grew precipitously while the King, the Dark Knight and the Golden Bear headlined the sport. They not only were known for their accomplishments on the course, but served as three of the greatest ambassadors the game has seen and partnered with Mark McCormack, founder of the International Management Group, to promote their business interests and mass appeal.

Palmer came along first, winning the U.S. Amateur in 1954 and seven major championships between 1958 and 1964. He endeared himself to fans with his good looks, daring style of play and authentic personality. “Arnie’s Army” was not only loyal, but vociferous in its support of Palmer throughout his career.

Known for his dedication to fitness in addition to his nine major championship titles, Player is the only non-American to win the career grand slam. No golfer has spent more time in an airplane than Player, who has logged more than 15 million miles in travel in his career.

Nicklaus won two U.S. Amateurs, in 1959 and 1961, and also finished runner-up to Palmer as an amateur in the 1960 U.S. Open. Their rivalry really began in 1962, however, when a 22-year-old Nicklaus made the U.S. Open his first professional win, denying Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont, just 35 miles from his hometown of Latrobe, Pa. Nicklaus amassed a record 18 major championships in his career, as well as 19 runner-up finishes, staking his claim as golf’s greatest major champion. Notably, Nicklaus had other rivalries throughout his career, going head to head against Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller in the 1970s and early 1980s, but no “Big Three” grouping resonated as strongly as Palmer, Player and Nicklaus.

Honorable Mention: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman

This international trio brought excitement back to the game as Palmer and Nicklaus’ careers began to wind down. While they were all very good players in their own right – World Golf Hall of Fame members in fact – they never seemed to be in the mix at the same time in majors, with the notable exception of Faldo and Norman in the 1993 Open Championship and 1996 Masters. Their career arcs overlapped, but this trio never seemed to be peaking at the same time and their 13 combined major championship titles- six for Faldo, five for Ballesteros (pictured), and two for Norman, pales in comparison to others on this list.

Honorable Mention: Tiger Woods … and two other guys

Tiger’s stretch from 1997 to 2008 is arguably the greatest in the history of golf. He won 14 major championships and had 25 top-five finishes in 46 major starts, missing just one cut. He was so dominant over this stretch that it is disingenuous to say there was any sort of legitimate rivalry or “Big Three” during this era. Numerous individuals made runs at Tiger, including Ernie Els, David Duval and Vijay Singh, who briefly passed him as the world’s top-ranked player, but none could mount more than a spirited charge that lasted a few months before fading back.

Interestingly, some of Woods’ greatest duels in major championships came against players that were either unproven or unheralded, including 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in the 1999 PGA Championship, Bob May in the 2000 PGA Championship, Chris DiMarco in the 2005 Masters and Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open. Based on tournament victories and major championships, the second-best golfer of this generation is Phil Mickelson, yet Woods and Mickelson only finished 1-2 one time in a major championship – the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, which was a three-stroke victory for Woods.

Michael Trostel is the Director of the USGA Museum. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.