The Best Major Champion: The American Triumvirate

We continue our exploration of who is THE greatest Major Champion. Before we get to the heart of this particular article, a brief word on the great Walter Hagen.

The Haig was the MAN. But he was born just a little too early for this award.

Walter Hagen is NOT the Best Major Champion, and honestly, it’s not his fault. Let’s look at his data:

GolferAvg FinishMastersU.S. OpenThe OpenPGA
Hagen12.7913.0010.7310.0018.07

A few things of note here – the overall 12.79th place in ALL MAJORS is the second best ever in my research. He had a top-10 finish 64% of the time, and 80% of the time finished in the top-25. His 11 major wins are the third best ever. The Haig played in 50 majors, pretty much what I think is the baseline for this award. So, why isn’t HE the greatest major champion?

For one, those even numbers for The Masters and The Open should raise an eyebrow. They are, of course, due to low sample size. He played in only three Masters. Why? Because it didn’t exist for most of his playing career. Is this fair? No, but neither is life. And in The Open, he only played in nine of them. My personal cutoff point is 10 in each event, but this is close enough to not be disqualifying. But this really means his record is much more about the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. I’ll get to why the PGA is a troubling event before the mid-1950’s but regardless, Hagen didn’t really do that well in it, averaging an 18th place finish. His dominance in the U.S. Open (16 top-10’s in 24 starts, an average of a 10.73 place finish) is what stands out.

But Hagen is also a good way to talk about the PGA Championship, which will come up in this article about Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Because 5 of Hagen’s 11 major championships came in this event (ironically, the major championship he had the “worst” average finish in.) And honestly, that number is fairly tainted – because the PGA Championship was match play until 1958. Which as a spectator is awesome, and I sort of wish they’d go back to it. But for figuring this out? It’s tough sledding. For one, match play is fairly random, and one bad round of 18 holes eliminates a good golfer, where in stroke play it’s not a death sentence. It’s just really hard to attach as much significance to a PGA match play championship as any stroke play championship.

Is this bias? YES! When I can’t rely on pure objective numbers, bias is implicit, so … deal with it.

Which brings us to the American Triumvirate of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. This nickname is not mine, and was lifted from the great book of the same name by James Dodson. The three are linked because they were clearly the dominant golfers of their era. They were born in the same year and in the case of Nelson and Hogan, in the same area. And they crushed it.

But none of them are the Best Major Champions. Let’s eliminate them one at a time.

Lord Byron Nelson

I’m just gonna guess this is a staged photo. Just me?

Nelson is a really interesting person, who basically retired from golf to spend more time as a rancher and to be a better husband. He later started commentating on matches, and has the nickname of Lord Byron both for the historical reference but also because he simply came across as a statesman and the best kind of Southern Gentleman.

And on the course, he was a BAD ASS.

GolferAvg FinishMastersU.S. OpenThe OpenPGA
Nelson14.3110.4029.0918.504.00

Nelson played in just 42 majors, which somewhat eliminates him from contention here. He won five majors, and his top-10 (66.7%) and top-25 (80.9%) are excellent. But diving deeper, we see other issues. That record in The Open isn’t great, but it’s also based on just two entries. And even in the PGA where he dominated, it’s only in nine events. And honestly, that record in the U.S. Open (where he did win twice) is not spectacular.

We love Byron Nelson, but he’s not making the cut here due to small sample size. We salute anyone who makes the choice to turn down fame and fortune to be a better family man, but it does come back to bite you sometimes.

Ben Hogan

If you know, you know.

I’ll admit, I started this analysis with a bit of a hope that I could make the case for this award going to Hogan. I’m not going to go into his legend, there are loads of great books on the subject. He also clearly seems like the guy who I’d LEAST like to have a beer with, as he was legendarily a grouch and a massive introvert. But man, could he play golf:

GolferAvg FinishMastersU.S. OpenThe OpenPGA
Mr. Hogan14.5113.2016.411.0015.14

A few things of note. One, I love how similar his average finish is to Nelson’s. That’s just poetry. And that record at the Masters goes until he stopped playing at age 52. 52! My god. Hogan won 10 Majors (note: I’m counting a 5th U.S. Open that others dispute), and his top-10 (70.9%) and top-25 (83.6%) are incredible. The man showed up and was in contention, almost always.

But … again, we have an issue with sample size. His 55 majors in total just clear our hurdle, but that even 1.00 average finish at The Open is the big reason here, because Hogan won the ONLY Open he ever played in, at Carnoustie. I was lucky enough to play there in August 2018, and here are two relevant photos I took:

Hard to not love this.
If you see the two golfers in the fairway, but the farthest left group – that’s where Hogan hit his drive, four out of four days. If you see the fence running along the left hand side – to the left of that is where I hit my drive.

Hogan was THE MAN. And yes, playing in The Open was not the norm for the time – but you can’t win if you don’t play. If he’d played a few more Opens, I think I’d make a stronger case for his inclusion here. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Sam Snead

Despite several attempts, I – nor anyone else – can wear this hat this well. And look how it matches the belt! He’s the GOAT in at least this way.

Again, my heart wanted to find a way to get Snead the title here. For one, he won a PGA event at my home club back in 1945, but also … Snead was so, so good, and nobody talks about him. Check out the data:

GolferAvg FinishMastersU.S. OpenThe OpenPGA
Snead11.958.6110.716.0015.68

Whew. Snead’s average finish of 11.95 is the best of any golfer here. His Masters finish of 8.61 is amazing, and it spans 18 events. He played in 62 majors, winning 7, and his top-10 (61.3%) and top-25 (83.9%) are top-notch. But again, we come to sample size – Snead only played in two Open’s, and a lot of his major victories were in the PGA, which has been discussed.

But that Masters record cannot be denied. At the end of this, I plan on not just awarding the Best Champion golfer, but ranking the next few and I’ll be damned if Snead doesn’t make my top-5. Slammin’ Sammy Snead deserves more respect than he gets.

Next up, it’s time to put on those bell bottoms, find that polyester shirt and grow out that hair – we’re taking a trip to the Seventies to see if we can find our greatest major champion there.

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