Through the rest of the golf calendar we are going to do pieces on golfers throughout history who can reasonably be considered the Greatest of All Time. This is not a list of the Greatest Golfers of All Time, but just those that can be in the conversation for #1. This eliminates all time greats such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, and Phil Mickelson from consideration, because despite their stellar achievements these men were direct contemporaries of players who were clearly better. The six we’ll deal with are: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. Except for Snead and Hogan, all the others were the best players of their generation. With Snead and Hogan it’s not obvious which one was better.
This is the case for Sam Snead.
Born in Ashwood, Virginia, Sam became a caddy at age seven. He worked his way up through the local golf community, becoming an assistant pro at The Homestead Golf Club at age 19. By age 24 he was on the PGA Tour and immediately won the West Virginia Open in 1936. This would be the first of 82 wins on the PGA Tour for “Slammin’” Sammy, which is still the record (Tiger Woods is 2nd with 80). He won seven Major Golf Tournaments during his career, the PGA in 1942, 1949 and 1951. The Masters in 1949, 1952, and 1954, and the Open Championship in 1946. Unfortunately, he had four second place finishes in the United States Open, but no wins, which prevented him from winning the Career Grand Slam.
His Major Championship record is what is given to dismiss Snead as the Greatest of all Time. It is less than half of the total of the record holder (Nicklaus 18) and two fewer than his great rival, Ben Hogan. A closer look makes things look a lot better for Snead. To begin with, the Open (British) Open wasn’t really a Major in those days due to it’s weak field and low prize money. The best American players just didn’t come over (you can read about that here). Ben Hogan played it only once (winning at Carnoustie in 1953), Byron Nelson competed only twice (5th in 1937 and 32nd in 1955, eight years after he had retired from competitive golf), Lloyd Mangrum once (24th in 1953), Jimmy Demerit also only once (1954) and Sam Snead only twice in his salad days, he finished 11th in 1937 and 1st in 1946 at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Due to the war, the tournament wasn’t even held between 1940 and 1945. This reality means that both Snead and Hogan (along with Nelson) only had three Majors to compete in during their prime. Also the Masters wasn’t held in 1943, 1944, or 1945, The U.S. Open was cancelled every year between 1942 and 1945, and the PGA Championship wasn’t played in 1943. Snead was in the Navy from 1942 to 1944, then was given a medical discharge due to a back injury while serving in San Diego, preventing him from competing in the PGA Championships in 1944 and 1945. That’s 16 Majors Snead missed solely because of the war. Sam turned 28 in May of 1940 and was a month shy of 36 when he played the Masters in 1946. Just to compare; Jack Nicklaus won seven of his 18 majors between ages 28 and 36, while Tiger Woods won six of his 14 between those ages. Sam’s Major record is very much on par with Nicklaus and Woods (as is Ben Hogan’s) if you give him credit for his lost opportunities during the war and the fact they were usually only competing in three Majors a year.
Now let us review Snead’s strongest argument to be considered the greatest ever, his 82 career PGA Tour victories. Just to be clear, this number is not a universally accepted one. When Snead was active he was credited with 88 wins. At that time the Open Championship was not considered a PGA Tour Event, but it is now, which would make 89. However, in the early 1980s tour commissioner Deane Beman reduced the number to 82. The main reason was he eliminated all victories that were won in tournaments with less than 54 holes or fields smaller than 20. So some of the victories Snead lost were the annual Crosby Pebble Beach Clam Bake when it was reduced to 36 holes due to rain, or the L.A. Open at Riviera for the same reason. There were other times during the era when there would be two events scheduled for the same week, but the PGA would only sanction one. Snead won several of the non PGA events and gets no credit for them even though many times the stronger field was in the non PGA event. This is why Snead is credited with anywhere between 89 and 67 tour victories depending on the source. There just isn’t enough information on several of his victories to determine if they met the 54 hole or 20 participant threshold. We’ll go with the PGA’s 82, but could be convinced to revise it either up or down with new information. As Snead famously said after being informed that his win total was reduced from 88 to 81. “Deane told me they found three more, then somebody got in there and knocked the props out from under me. How can one victory be official and one be unofficial when you have the same (not nice word) players every week.”
The other persuasive argument for Snead’s greatness is his ability to win over a long career. Sam won 17 events in the 1930s, 32 in the 1940s, 29 in the 1950s and four more in the 1960s. Look at that number in the 1940s; Snead won 32 events even with a two year stint in the Navy during World War II. He then won four events when he was in his late 40s and early 50s. Those wins came when Arnold Palmer was at the peak of his powers, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Billy Casper were also on tour. These were not weak fields. Snead is still the oldest person to win a tour event when he won at Greensboro at age 52 years and 311 days in 1965. At age 62 he finished 3rd at the PGA Championship, won by Lee Trevino. It was his 3rd consecutive top ten finish in the PGA Championship. He was clearly competitive well into his 60s.
Let’s quickly deal with why Byron Nelson is not included in the Greatest of All Time debate. First, he won “only” 52 PGA Tour events. We say only, because Snead won 82 and Hogan won 64. Some of that is due to the fact that Nelson retired from the tour at age 34, but we have to take many of Lord Byron’s wins with a grain of salt. His two greatest years, 1944, when he won eight times, and 1945, when he won an unprecedented 18 times, were accomplished during the war years. His chief rivals were either not playing or playing a limited schedule due to military service. When Nelson had his incredible run of 11 straight PGA Tour wins (now there’s a record that will never be broken) Hogan and Jimmy Demaret competed in only two of the events, and Lloyd Mangrum none. Sam Snead did play a full schedule (he won six times in 1945), but he was coming off an injury suffered while serving in the U.S. Navy. Nelson’s record, as impressive as it is, does not match his two contemporary rivals.
Was Snead better than Hogan? Well, despite the fact they were both born in 1912, there career arcs were very different. Hogan won his first PGA event in 1940, by that time Snead already had 17 victories. Both men entered into military service during World War II Hogan (Ben served from 1943-1945) had 16 tour wins at the time of his enlistment, while Snead already had 28 when he enlisted in 1942. Snead was much the more accomplished player prior to the war. Snead had won his first Major in 1942, and had also finished 2nd four other times in Majors. Hogan had no Major titles and only one 2nd place finish, in the 1942 Masters. Hogan’s first Major was after the war, the 1946 PGA Championship. No doubt the war had a major impact on both their careers, but Snead was impacted worse than Hogan. Despite the war, Snead won four of his seven Majors in the 1940s while Hogan won six of his nine in the 1950s. Hogan had other issues that negatively impacted his career that we’ll cover in our Hogan article, but we’re left with deciding which is the more impressive record; 82 wins and 7 Majors (Snead), or 64 wins and 9 majors (Hogan). It seems to be a toss up.