Originally Posted by MS256
If I had the information I wanted I wouldn't count we weekend hackers as part of the competition pool but would count serious golfers that are close to a pro level.
You are absolutely correct. The number of recreational golfers in the world doesn't have much to do with the depth of fields in pro golf. What counts is the number of talented and serious golfers --- talented enough to be scratch players, and serious enough to want to compete in world class events. Hackers don't matter at all, and scratch players don't matter if they don't enter big time events.
Fortunately, there is a number that easily measures the number of talented and serious golfers, that goes back more than 100 years --- the number of entrants in the US Open.
There were never more than 100 entrants before 1912, so you just showed up and played.
In 1912, there were 131 entrants, and the USGA decided to institute on-site qualifying the next year. That lasted until Bobby Jones won his first US Open in 1923. By then, the number of entrants had crept up to over 300, and the popularity of Jones was bound to make the numbers increase even more rapidly, so the USGA began sectional qualifying in 1924.
By 1928, the number exceeded 1000 for the first time. But then the Depression hit, so it didn't grow much for the next ten years. It was still just 1048 in 1941, and 1175 in 1946, when the US Open resumed after a four year hiatus for WW2.
It first went over 2000 in 1958, it first went over 3000 in 1968, 4000 in 1971, 5000 in 1982, 6000 in 1990. It then stagnated until 1996, when it was 5925, and then took off again for some reason, to 7013 in 1997, 8455 by 2000, and 9048 by 2005. It's remained a little over 9000 since then.
IMO these numbers give a good indication of the number of serious and talented golfers playing in the US, and therefore of the talent pool for the PGA Tour. Of course they're not exact --- travel considerations made it harder for players in remote states, let alone foreign countries, to enter, for one thing, and the USGA has been tightening up the minimum handicap to try to keep the numbers manageable, for another. But they are at least proportional. And IMO they show that the talent pool approximately tripled between the 1920's and the 1960's, and tripled again between the 1960's and now. Interestingly, in his 1997 autobiography, Jack Nicklaus said almost exactly the same thing --- that he had three times the competition as Jones, and that modern golfers had three times the competition he did.
You can also estimate the level of competition by looking at the number of world class players in the majors of different eras. There were no world rankings before 1986, but given the lack of players in most non-English speaking countries, and the devastation caused by WW2 in Europe that took a full generation to overcome, IMO it's very safe to say that at least 50 of the world's top 100 golfers were playing on the PGA Tour in the 1960's. So when the number of PGA touring pros entering the British Open ranged between 0 and 12, as it did from 1959-1969, with similar poor attendance from Australian and South African players (Peter Thomson and Bobby Locke almost always played, but few of their peers did), it's pretty clear that the British Opens of the 60's had weaker fields than the Memorial does today. We also know that the PGA Championships of the 60's had fields that were two-thirds club pros, the Masters had small fields, and the US Open had very few international players.
That's about as far as facts and common sense can take you. Well, that, and the fact that in every sport where we have objective comparisons of speed or height or distance, athletes have been steadily getting better, to the point where high school girls can beat the gold medal times of men's Olympic champion swimmers of the 60's.
I realize that facts and common sense are not enough for some people. I realize that there's no way to prove that Old Tom couldn't beat Tiger at Firestone if he had modern equipment. I'm just going with the odds -- I think it's reasonable to assume that a guy who wins against the top 130+ players in the world at his British Opens can beat the guy who won against 7 local club pros at Prestwick. Same with Gary Player beating exactly zero PGA touring pros when he won the 1959 Open, or Arnie beating two or three in 1961, or Jack beating 8 in 1966.
It's not provable that the best players today are the best in history. It may be true that golf is the only sport where athletes have gotten steadily worse over the last 50 years. It may be true that the best 150 guys from a pool of 3000 are harder to beat than the best 150 guys from a pool of 9000. And it may be true that leveling effect of modern equipment, the attraction of big money making more athletes choose golf as their first sport, and the instant feedback from modern technology helping players perfect their launch angle, spin rate, etc. when earlier players couldn't even measure such things, hasn't resulted in tougher competition.
Ben Hogan, the subject of this thread, is IMO the most interesting golfer in history to play "what if" with. There are so many "on the other hand" scenarios with him.
Obviously, if he hadn't had his accident, he would have played and won a lot more tournaments. On the other hand, he might not have won the career Grand Slam, because he would have played the PGA Championship every year, instead of being forced to skip it while it was match play because of his legs, and he didn't care enough about the British Open to play it unless he had nothing better to do, as he said himself.
He had four years of his prime pretty much cancelled for WW2. On the other hand, the very weak fields during and after the war enabled him to rack up superhuman numbers of wins and majors in the 8 years following the war.
Most importantly, he was nearly 30 years old before he started winning consistently, because he had to find his swing by trial and error on the range, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Imagine what he could have done with modern technology giving him instant feedback on subtle adjustments in this swing,
I think there's an excellent chance he might have been the GOAT.