The Best Major Champion: The Swinging Seventies

As noted, I’ve been working on a project to determine, with as much objectivity as possible, who the Best Major Champion of all time is. In order to do that, I’ve been eliminating good candidates to try and figure out who is the last man standing.

The overall outline of the project is here, and previous installments covered The Modern Crop, and The American Triumvirate. Today, we’re going back to the 1970s to look at some of the guys who were very, very good … but who are not the Best Major Champion. As such, I won’t be including guys like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Playerand Arnold Palmer (Player and Palmer are more of 1960s guy, in fairness) but we will be going through some legends.

The 1970s is when I first became aware of golf, and knew it mostly as the sport boring old dads were into (now, I’m a boring old dad) and also for having laughably bad fashion:

I know people are desperately trying to bring back the hard collar and the rope hat and please, just DON’T. Also, apologies to Tom Weiskopf who I don’t even include in this analysis except to say that when I think of bad golf fashion, he’s literally the first guy I think of. That’s him in the argyle, and that’s frankly a pretty mild look for him. Here’s another:

Anyway, believe it or not this is NOT an article about golf fashion, but rather a look at the best golfers from the 1970s who aren’t quite the Best Major Champion.

So, who does this include?

Some of my favorites of all time – Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Jumbo Ozaki and Andy North.

Why these guys? They all won some majors, had national and international notoriety, and feel like we couldn’t have this discussion without them. I’m quite sure I’m missing a few guys, but these are the ones for this column. Let’s break it all down, table style:

GolferAvg Finish# of MajorsWinsTop-10%Top-25%
Seve Ballesteros36.6384523.8%44.0%
Ben Crenshaw32.5787231.0%51.7%
Raymond Floyd26.7795426.8%64.2%
Hale Irwin25.7762329.0%59.7%
Tom Kite29.4783128.9%51.8%
Johnny Miller35.1668223.5%42.7%
Andy North45.945329.4%26.4%
Jumbo Ozaki41.713109.7%32.3%
Lee Trevino23.1763633.3%60.3%
Tom Watson20.4386851.2%70.9%

So, we can immediately eliminate Jumbo Ozaki and Andy North. Ozaki I included because I knew of his legend and also because I knew he got a lot of flak for not playing that often on the PGA Tour but racking up (sometimes disputed) wins on international tours. Well, I can see why he didn’t play here that much. And somehow, the two fluky U.S. Open wins notwithstanding, he’s better than North! (Note: At some point, we’ll get back to North when we look at the Worst Major Champion. He isn’t that guy, but he is part of the discussion.)

He’s winning awards for lots of things here. But he’s not the Best Major Champion.

I was also pretty shocked to see how, overall, these guys didn’t really do great in majors – Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros and Johnny MIller. All of them are world-class, Hall of Fame golfers. But in majors, they weren’t really in the mix nearly often enough. They’re out. That leaves us with five guys, who we will look a bit deeper at:

GolferAvg FinishMastersUS OpenThe OpenPGA
Floyd26.7725.5629.3624.0027.16
Irwin25.7728.6725.6219.6326.28
Kite29.4719.7037.6831.1028.62
Trevino23.1729.0027.3515.2721.18
Watson20.4311.2423.3924.9521.95

OK, so these guys are the real deal. But none of them make the cut, and here’s why:

Tom Kite – Despite his GOAT look, featured below, my guy Kite won just a single major, and only had a top-10 finish in less than 29% of his tournaments. (He only had five total top-3 finishes.)

My god.

Similarly, Raymond Floyd and Hale Irwin didn’t break the 30% threshold for finishing in the top-10 in majors played, a threshold I just created. But it’s an important thing to consider – the two of these guys have seven majors between them, but 70% of the time they weren’t close to the first page of the leaderboard. I say no!

Next up, we look at Lee Trevino. You have to already know how much we love Trevino here – our frigging website is based on a quote from Mr. Trevino himself:

You can talk to a fade, but a hook won’t listen.

Lee Trevino

And Trevino was so much better than the legacy he seems to have. Rarely discussed as one of the better golfers of all time, Trevino has SIX major wins, and his worst major performance was at The Masters, a tournament he talked a lot about how uncomfortable he was at due to the legacy of racism with the club and tournament. I am not holding that against him. He played in 63 majors, and at least ten in each one of them, so he clears all the hurdles. Trevino has serious credentials here.

But he pales in comparison to Tom Watson, who just might be my favorite legend golfer. Watson was the man, somehow combining that midwest charm with California cool, and his stats are even better – note that these don’t include his runner-up finish in The Open at Turnberry at the age of 58, or his ninth place at the PGA at the age of 51! He won EIGHT majors, and he averaged an 11th place finish at The Masters. Almost 71% of the time he finished in the top-25 of any major he entered, and over 51% of the time he was in the top-10.

This is from the legendary Duel in the Sun battle at Turnberry. Watson beat some guy named Nicklaus by one stroke.

I have nothing negative to say about Watson here, except that all of these statistics aren’t quite good enough to make the cut. That, folks, is what we call a tease.

Next time up, we jump forward into the 80s and 90s to look at some world class golfers who also weren’t quite up to snuff in this analysis.

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