IN 1987 Ian Woosnam won the Jersey Open, the Madrid Open, the Scottish Open, the Trophee Lancome, the World Match Play Championship, the Hong Kong Open, the Sun City Million Dollar Challenge, the World Cup individual and team (alongside David Llewellyn) trophies and was a star performer in the European Ryder Cup side that won for the first time on US soil at Muirfield Village. By almost any measure, the then 29-year old Welshman was the best player in the world that season.
And yet. The following June, when Curtis Strange defeated Nick Faldo in a play-off for the US Open title, Woosnam was watching at home on television. No, he hadn’t missed the cut in America’s national championship; he simply hadn’t met any of the exemption criteria through which he could have gained entry to the starting line-up. Unbelievable.
These days, such blatant point-missing/ xenophobia/bias – call it what you will – is less common. But until relatively recently the three American majors were far less accessible to players born without an Uncle Sam. When Seve Ballesteros became the first player from the Old World to win the Masters Tournament in 1980, only four Europeans were in the field. And one of them was an amateur. That same year, Peter Oosterhuis (who missed the cut) was the only man from the eastern end of the Atlantic Ocean to compete in the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
And yet (2). While it is happily true that golf’s four most important events are today more enlightened when it comes to deciding who plays and who does not, major championship performance continues to play a large part in historical measures of quality – or otherwise. Which is nonsense.
Take Neil Coles, a man who never once played in either the US Open or the US PGA and withdrew from his only Masters in 1966. Yes, the now 83-year old Englishman’s reluctance to fly has much to do with the paucity of his appearances stateside. But, no matter, his inability to regularly tee-up alongside America’s best has harmed his legacy. Which is crazy. Does anyone who saw Coles in his prime really think this beautiful golfer was in any way inferior to the likes of Dave Stockton, Lou Graham, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Bob Goalby and Don January? All of those guys won major titles during Coles’ peak years.
The same argument can easily be applied to Peter Alliss. In his considerable pomp – before the putting yips set in – the man who would become golf’s finest commentator was a brilliant ball striker. Tee-to-green, few were better than Alliss, who was good enough to beat Arnold Palmer then halve with Tony Lema at the 1963 Ryder Cup in Atlanta. But, like Coles, Alliss never played in either the US Open or the US PGA. And only twice did he compete in the Masters. This inequity continued into the next generation. Who doesn’t think the likes of Mark James, Ken Brown, Howard Clark and Sam Torrance are not at least the equals of, say, Bob Tway, Larry Mize and Jeff Sluman? Yet the Americans will all be remembered as major champions, the winners of events the British quartet hardly ever played in. A quick comparison between, say, Clark and Tway, is revealing. Clark played in 27 Grand Slam events but only four in the United States. Tway was in the field for 71 majors, 55 of those on his home ground. Who was the better golfer? Clark, at least in the realm of ball-striking. But history will no doubt take a different view. Because Tway is forever a “major champion.” Perhaps the most egregious victim of US bias is South Africa’s Bobby Locke (pictured). Again, the record books will suggest that the best players in the world during the late 1940s were Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson – all American and all multiple major champions. But here’s the thing. Locke played in the US for two and half years at that time, winning 11 of the 59 events he started and finishing in the top-three more than half the time. He would also go on to win four Open Championships between 1949 and 1957. Such a record clearly had the Americans worried. Spuriously citing his failure to show up for a couple of minor events, the US Tour suspended Locke. At least that was the public version. Privately, as former Masters champion Claude Harmon was moved to admit, “Locke was simply too good. They had to ban him.” So there you have it. Next time you hear Jack Nicklaus was a better player than Tiger Woods because he won more major titles, take a closer look at the evidence. Often enough, all is not what it might seem.