Last week at the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, the early attention naturally drifted to the top three players in the world rankings — Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — dubbed the modern Big Three. For the week, the trio did little to affirm that label. Day shot two over 282 to finish tied for eighth in the Championship. Spieth shot nine over 289, finishing tied for 37th. And McIlroy shot 78-71 and missed the cut.
Comparing players generations apart is always difficult, but golf at least offers the common ground of the historic courses on which players compete decades apart. What is most revealing in trying to grab a snapshot of the original Big Three and place it alongside the modern trio at similar ages is how early today’s players arrive and mature.
Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus line up chronologically in the same order as Day, McIlroy and Spieth. So for this comparison, we paired the oldest, middle and youngest “child” at similar ages.
Palmer turned professional at the most advanced age — 25 — and at Jason Day’s current age of 28, where the two stood in their careers is starkly different. Day is in his 10th year as a professional, and his PGA Tour win total is 10 with one major. Only three years into his career at the same age, Palmer had collected six titles and no major wins.
Player and McIlroy are similar in their entry into the game and, allowing for Player’s heavy international schedule, their totals line up much more closely. Now nine years into his professional career, McIlroy has 11 Tour wins and four major triumphs. Player, with the same number of years as professional, had six PGA Tour wins and three majors.
Nicklaus-Spieth comparisons are nearly impossible on the same age scale. At 22 Spieth is in his fourth year on Tour with eight career wins including last year’s back-to-back majors. Nicklaus turned professional at age 22, and his first career win was a major — the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
The raw math would give the edge at this point to the new generation. Day, McIlroy and Spieth have a combined 29 wins and seven majors among them. The old guys collected 13 wins with four majors.
Looking forward it will be interesting to see how much the totals level out as today’s group hits what should be their prime years. The originals put out amazing numbers for this generation’s trio to chase.
Palmer exploded in the next 10 years of his career. Those prime years found Arnold finishing first 46 times, with all seven of his majors occurring in that one-decade window. Player was the steadiest, with 11 additional U.S. wins and three more majors on the resume. And Nicklaus used the Oakmont win to launch the Golden Bear era. In his first 10 years as a professional, Nicklaus added 44 wins going head to head against Palmer and Player, and 10 of those were majors. Of the 40 majors contested in that decade, the Big Three won slightly more than half of them.
To equal the new Big Three 10 years from now, Day, Player and Spieth will need to post 103 more Tour wins and, as a group, pick up 21 more major titles.
As a footnote to the discussion, Day, McIlroy and Spieth point to Tiger Woods as the role model they followed into the game. A look at how those three collectively match up with Woods at age 28 shows the trio’s 29 and seven totals versus Woods’ 37 Tour wins and eight of his current 14 majors.
Not an argument settled but ammunition for both sides.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.