We’ve asked Jim Gorant and Gary Van Sickle to debate who was the greater golfer: Byron Nelson or Ben Hogan. After reading their arguments, tell us what you think in the comments section below.
Golf is a marathon, not a sprint. Byron Nelson enjoyed the greatest year of golf. Ben Hogan had a better career.
There are no “what-ifs” allowed in this debate. What if Byron hadn’t retired at 34? There’s no telling how many more tournaments he might have won, but it doesn’t matter. He did. What if Hogan hadn’t missed three years of golf while serving in the Army? What if Hogan hadn’t nearly died in that infamous car crash? There’s no telling how many more titles he would have won, or how many majors that accident cost him.
Instead, just look at the numbers. The fact is, Nelson’s numbers don’t stack up because he left the game early. Victories? It’s Hogan 64, Nelson 52. And half of Nelson’s total came in two years — 1944 and 1945 — when many top players were missing, including Hogan. Johnny Miller may have been the game’s best player over a two-year span in the 1970s, but a golfer is judged by his career, and thus he’s no match for Jack Nicklaus.
While Nelson was nearly unbeatable for two full years, Hogan played longer and better and accomplished more. Major championships? The score reads: Hogan 9, Nelson 5. U.S. Opens? It’s Hogan 4, Nelson 1. Hogan played 36 majors from 1939 through 1956. He won nine and finished second in six. Overall, he finished fifth or better in 25 of the 36.
Hogan was the game’s ultimate shotmaker. Name the shot and the trajectory, and Hogan could hit it. He had a great short game, which helped make up for ordinary putting that, in his later years, became atrocious. One apocryphal story goes like this. Hogan hit an iron shot onto a par-3 green, and his playing companion asked him what club he’d hit. Hogan gave the man an icy stare, took another club and another ball from his caddie, and hit it on the green. Then he did it again. And again until he’d used every iron in his bag to deposit a ball on the green. “Don’t ever ask me that again!” Hogan barked.
Whether it’s true or simply part of the Hogan myth, the point is this: The secret was in the dirt, and Hogan dug it out. He would’ve won five U.S. Opens if not for Jack Fleck’s heroic finish at the Olympic Club in 1955. He won his last tour title in 1959 at Colonial. In 1960 he was 48 and basically retired, but he still made a strong run at Cherry Hills in the Open, finishing fifth. He won golf’s triple crown in 1953 — the Masters, the U.S. Open and, in his only attempt overseas, the British Open. He didn’t play in the PGA Championship throughout the 1950s because the grueling match-play format meant some 36-hole days, which his battered legs simply could not withstand.
Partly because of his mystique in later years and mostly because of his ball-striking skills, he was the most-feared player of his era. Hogan was the greatest shotmaker of his generation. Years later, Tommy Bolt was credited with saying, “All I know is that Nicklaus watches Hogan practice. I never heard of Hogan watching Nicklaus practice.”
Nelson was a great player. Hogan was a great player… and for longer.