GOOD statistics, they say, is a powerful weapon capable of solving any argument.
Well, is it?
Will the stats or other factors solve this puzzle: Who is Australia’s greatest ever golfer – male or female?
The question arose after Karrie Webb captured the ShopRite PGA Classic on the US LPGA Tour last month.
It was the 38-year-old’s 39th victory on the LPGA Tour.
Those who measure greatness by the number of major wins will say Webb (7 wins) is Australia’s greatest golfer followed by the legendary Peter Thomson (5), Greg Norman and David Graham (2 each).
Graham Marsh won 70 professional tournaments including two majors on the Champions Tour.
Most aficionados seem to think it’s a three-person race between “Spider” Webb, Thommo and the Shark.
There are many firmly in the Webb camp. They believe the honour should be judged on major victories alone.
However, there are strong arguments in favour of the Thomson and iconic and charismatic Norman.
All three are worthy contenders, but they are of different generations.
When Thomson won his fifth Open Championship in 1965, Norman was still in short pants, aged 10.
When the Shark, at 38, won his second Open Championship in 1993, Webb was 18 and contemplating turning professional, which she did a year later.
Let’s look at the facts and figures.
Thomson has 86 professional victories, many of those achieved by playing in a coat and tie and with “ancient” equipment.
Does Thomson earn extra points for using 1950s equipment and golf balls?
Many will argue players from different eras battled each other using the same equipment so it cancels out that argument.
In Thomson’s era, travel was slow and difficult compared to modern times when many stars travel by private jet.
Thomson didn’t have minders like psychologists, dieticians, fitness trainers, etc.
Thomson was up against formidable opponents like Bobby Locke, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Sam Snead.
Norman, according to the record books, has 91 professional victories playing against some of the greats including Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and towards the end Tiger Woods.
Webb, with 59 worldwide wins, too, battled the best players like Annika Sorenstam, Laura Davies, Yani Tseng, Lorena Ochoa and the current crop of Korean champions.
Still, as someone with more majors than any other Australian, Webb can genuinely claim, “I’m the greatest Australian golfer ever”, but she distances herself from the men versus women argument.
Webb won’t comment, but former Australian Ladies Professional Golf CEO Warren Sevill will and shares Webb’s thoughts.
“The men’s and women’s game shouldn’t be thrown in the same basket when it comes to this topic,” he said. “It’s the same sport, different game.
“The schedules, strength of field and style of play (power) vary between the men’s and women’s game as is the debate when the same question is posed in other sports such as tennis.
“The depth, quality of player and nature of the game due to technology, changes in different eras.
“It comes down to the definition of ‘great or greatest’ and how ‘greatness’ is measured or interpreted.
“If we are talking about skill, mental strength, swing and technique then Karrie is as good as anyone we have ever seen.
“She has produced the shots and scores under pressure as well as, if not better, than any of our great players.”
Sevil believes the subject of the “greatest” should be compared on records only.
“I believe Karrie Webb is our most successful golfer,” he said. “Her seven major victories stand as the greatest record of all Australian golfers. “Norman has more wins worldwide, just two majors, but he has played more events per year than Karrie has during her career.
“On the other hand, Karrie played more than Peter Thomson so the argument is a complex one.
“If the measure is majors, then obviously Karrie’s seven victories cement her as our greatest ever when compared to the records of Norman, Thomson and Graham.
“I believe she can win a couple more and I doubt that any Australian will ever match her major record.”
Speaking of Graham, his two majors and 38 professional wins is astonishing considering the natural left-hander had to learn to play right-handed.
Ben Hogan, who watched Graham win the US Open at Merion, said he had never seen anyone hit the golf ball better than the Australian for accuracy and consistency.
According to Norman’s former coach Charlie Earp, Graham must be a contender.
“Graham won the US Open and the US PGA, did well in British Open (tied 3rd) and won the Australian Open,” he said.
Then there’s the other Norman … Norman von Nida, Australia’s golfing pioneer. Is he the greatest?
He led the charge into Europe and America and encouraged a nation of young champions to leave our shores and conquer the golfing world.
Earp, who has had an association with most of the top players, said von Nida paved the way for players like Thomson, Kel Nagle, the two Bruces Crampton and Devlin, Eric Cremin and others.
Despite not winning a major, the Von’s record is impressive.
He finished inside the top-10 at the Open Championship on four occasions while his best result at the US Masters was a tie for 27th and a tie for 59th at the US Open.
Like Thomson, the Von never played in the US PGA Championship.
The Von finished his career with 43 professional wins – 30 of those on the Australasian Tour. He won three Australian Opens and four Australian PGA Championships.
“Let’s not forget Peter Senior,” Earp added. He’s been a good player for a long, long time.
“And Bruce Crampton was a great player and sometimes played in every tournament in the year without a break. They don’t do that anymore.”
But back to the big three – Webb, Thomson and Norman.
Aside from his five Claret Jugs, Thomson won just once on the US PGA Tour – the Texas International Open in a playoff against Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler.
He did win 11 times on the Senior US PGA Tour and if you count his US PGA Seniors’ Championship victory in 1985 he has six majors under his belt.
Since turning 50 in 2005, Norman has played a limited number of Champions Tour events, choosing rather to concentrate on his golf design business and other business interests.
That brings us to the business of second best in majors. Does it count for anything?
Norman leads this race with eight runner-up finishes compared to Webb’s five and Thomson’s three. (See tables below for other stats).
And what about major playoff loses?
When it comes to major playoff losses, Norman might just be the unluckiest golfer on the planet.
In 1987, he lost the US Masters to Larry Mize, who chipped in from an acute angle to win, lost an 18-hole playoff against Fuzzy Zoeller in the 1984 US Open, the 1989 Open Championship to Mark Calcavecchia and the 1993 US PGA to Paul Azinger.
Norman fans will argue he is Australia’s greatest golfing export – a man who spent 331 weeks as world number one.
When the Shark exploded on to the scene in the early 1980s, he popularised the game in Australia like no other.
If he was in the field, the turnstiles never stopped turning. He was one person people didn’t mind paying to watch play … and practice.
Norman was a charismatic magnet in the 1980s and 1990s. Everyone wanted to play golf and clubs thrived and put up MEMBERSHIP FULL signs.
Golf magazine editors would put the Shark on the cover at every opportunity because they knew magazine sales would rise dramatically.
“When Greg arrived on the tee in America, Australia, Canada or Europe the crowds waited for him to see him play,” Earp said.
“Look what happened at the Palm Meadows Cup when he disqualified himself … everyone walked out.
“I was at a tournament in Sydney with Greg and a couple of guys walked up and said, ‘we want to congratulate you pair. You have done this country proud and nobody has done more for this country than you’.
“That was in reference to what Greg has done for our sport. He has done it in America, Canada, Europe and everywhere else.
“You have to consider all things when judging who is Australia’s greatest.
“If you go on majors alone, then Karrie is the greatest.”
If you go on each player’s ability and strength and add to it their overall contribution to the game, it’s another story.
Webb’s coach Ian Triggs agrees.
“I believe Karrie is our greatest ever golfer, because she won all the women’s majors and won many tournaments on all continents,” he said. “Greg (Norman) won two majors and Peter Thomson won five. Peter never really competed in the US so I don’t believe they have quite equalled or beaten Karrie.
“Even though Greg has won many tournaments, many were on Australia’s tour and he wasn’t competing against the world’s leading players on all occasions. Most of Karrie’s wins have been against the leading players most times.
“Karrie secured the Grand Slam and was the youngest person admitted to the Hall of Fame.”
I ask Peter Thomson who he believes is Australia’s best ever golfer.
“It’s complicated to come up with an answer,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to make a judgement because I am involved, but I thought Karrie Webb was the best of the three. “She is a very skilful player and is still playing well.”
Norman, Webb and Thomson have made major contributions off the golf course.
The Shark started the Greg Norman Golf Foundation for juniors, put his name to the Greg Norman Holden International and has been there as support to most young professionals.
Webb, too, has inspired a young generation of young women starting their professional journey as did Thomson in the 1960s and ’70s.
As players, Norman’s raw power at the height of his game was something to behold.
“Thommo also used to get it out there and so does Karrie on the women’s tour, but I have never seen anybody hit a golf ball as well as Greg,” Earp said.
“When it comes to accuracy, Karrie is straight and Thommo could work the golf ball beautifully.
“Of course, Ossie Pickworth, who won four Australian Opens, was the best three-wood player I ever saw.
“Greg, Karrie and Thommo all had good short games, but when it came to putting Greg was hot and cold.
“Like Adam Scott, he missed them when he needed them most. At their peak, Karrie and Thommo were very good putters, but Kel Nagle, the Centenary Open champion, was a hell of a putter.”
For the record, Nagle recorded 80 professional wins in his illustrious career.
Bruce Crampton won 42 professional tournaments – 14 of those were on the US PGA Tour and 20 on the Championship Tour. Bruce Devlin won eight times on the PGA Tour, once on the Champions Tour and 16 times on the Australasian Tour.
Player Majors Cuts Major 2nds 3rds Top-5s Top-10s Top-25s
Played made wins
Greg Norman 91 71 2 8 4 20 30 48
Peter Thomson 43 35 5 3 1 12 20 30
Karrie Webb 70 64 7 5 3 15 33 48
David Graham 77 56 2 0 1 5 16 28
Kel Nagle 41 29 1 2 0 7 9 18
WINS AROUND THE WORLD
Player Wins US Aust Europe Japan Seniors Other
Greg Norman 91 20 31 14 2 0 24
Peter Thomson 86 6 34 26 1 11 8
Karrie Webb 59 39 12 1 3 N/A 4
David Graham 39 8 8 2 1 5 15
Kel Nagle 80 2 61 0 0 5 12
Graham Marsh 70 1 15 4 25 6 19
Bruce Crampton 42 14 4 0 0 20 4
Bruce Devlin 28 8 16 0 0 1 3
Peter Senior 31 0 22 4 3 1 1
Jim Ferrier 30 18 10 0 0 0 2
Jan Stephenson 26 16 2 1 2 3 2
Frank Phillips 23 0 17 0 0 0 6
Karrie Webb: World Hall of Fame; LET rookie of year 1995; LPGA rookie of year 1996; LPGA money winner 1996-1999-2000; LPGA player of the year 1999- 2000; LPGA Vare Trophy 1997-1999-2000; LPGA Achievement Award 2000.
Greg Norman: World Hall of Fame; PGA Tour of Australia OOM winner 1878-’80-’83-’84-’86-’88; European Tour OOM 1982; PGA Tour money winner 1986-’90-’95; PGA player of the year 1995; Vardon Trophy 1989-’90-’94; Byron Nelson Award 1998-’90-’93-’94 ’95; Old Tom Morris Award 2008 and Charlie Bartlett Award 2008.
Peter Thomson: World Hall of Fame member; Champions Tour OOM winner 1985 and Arnold Palmer Award (Champions Tour). Thommo would have finished atop the money list in Europe numerous times.
Greatest Australian female golfer and sportsperson
There is little doubt Karrie Ann Webb is Australia’s greatest female golfer.
Jan Stephenson, who has 26 professional wins including three majors, held that title prior to Webb’s domination.
Then there is the debate about who is Australia’s greatest female sportsperson ever.
“Karrie is our greatest,” Sevil said emphatically. “Our Olympic champions have always been highlighted as the greatest because of the domestic and international media focus on the Olympics.
“With due respect, what Karrie has achieved outshines any of our other female sporting greats.
“She has mastered a game, which demands a broad skill set to be able to execute such a wide range of shots. Compared to running or swimming 100-400m, golf is the most difficult game of all.
“Karrie competes against ‘Olympic’ fields of more than 100 potential winners each time she tees it up … 25 weeks of the year.
“She has achieved world number one status and has been winning world-class events for 20 years.
“At the time (2005), she was the youngest ever to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame and is the only Australian female on that honour roll.
“I think it is a shame she has been denied the general media attention she deserves and, as a result, the general public are unaware of the enormity of her achievements.
“Thus, the perception of ‘who is our greatest’ is somewhat awareness based.”
Sevil may well be right, but fans of tennis, badminton, swimming and athletics may beg to differ.
Tennis player Margaret Court won 62 Grand Slams – 24 singles titles, 19 doubles and 19 mixed doubles titles.
Heather McKay (squash) dominated the game in the 1960s and 1970s winning 16 consecutive British Open titles. She won the world squash title twice, the US and Canadian squash titles and the Australian amateur 14 years in a row.
Swimmers Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould can’t be overlooked.
Gould set world records in five freestyle distances – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m – and won a string of gold medals at the Olympics. She held eight Australian titles, broke 21 records and retired at age 16.
Fraser became the only swimmer (male or female) to win the 100m, freestyle at three successive Olympics – 1956, 1960 and 1964.
She won eight Olympic medals and six Commonwealth Games gold medals.
Well, dear readers, those are the facts and some of the statistics.
Who do you think is Australia’s greatest golfer – male or female? And is Karrie Webb Australia’s greatest female sportsperson?
If you have an opinion, post it below: