For decades, golf had a “Big Three” who rose above the competition and paved paths toward stardom that few could emulate — and they all did this at the same time. Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus were friends and fierce competitors from 1960 onward. Even in retirement, the three were synonymous with one another.
As golf grows further removed from their playing days, however, people want to crown a new big three. However, they may not be looking in the right place.
Who are the original ‘Big Three’?
The Big Three were a perfect combination of marketing, talent, intrigue, and personalities bigger than their sport, according to the Professional Golfers Career College. First competing in 1961 during an exhibition with the legendary Sam Snead, the trio went on to dominate the PGA Tour for several years. While Nicklaus emerged as the clear-cut winner, all three remain legends in their own right.
From 1962, when they secured every major championship on the year, to the later days on the Senior Circuit, the trio revolutionized golf. Palmer, Nicklaus, and Player’s competitions on the green became must-watch events. And they capitalized further by holding several exhibitions against each other.
Although the three stopped playing decades ago, their impact on the game is still evident. Nicklaus and Player are consistently on-hand at major events to provide a legendary photo op and show the newer generation what it’s like to be bigger than a pro athlete. Palmer, who unfortunately passed away in 2016, was alongside them until the very end.
With such big shoes to fill, however, golf is desperate to find a “Big Three” of the modern generation in the form of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day. In doing so, however, many feel fans are manufacturing something that isn’t as natural as the original Big Three.
Is there a modern Big Three?
For several years, golf couldn’t have a Big Three due to the level of domination displayed by Tiger Woods from his teens until his thirties. While other competitors, like Phil Mickelson, became stars in their own right, Woods existed on a plane even Nicklaus would’ve struggled to compete with.
To this day, with Woods a shell of his former self, the sport of golf lives and dies by whether he competes. When all goes well for Woods, people will flock by the millions to see if he can get one step closer to Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. When Woods struggles, however, casual observers don’t seem very interested in the sport.
This is not to say golf doesn’t have three stars. Spieth, McIlroy, and Day have all seen success, and all three are still in their prime. What they lack, however, is the star power and marketability of the original Big Three.
Can this be replicated?
The modern Big Three has a notable supporter in Jack Nicklaus, reports Golf.com. While they might not have reached the heights of the Golden Bear, Palmer, or Player, Nicklaus has no problem comparing golf’s three biggest stars who are not Tiger Woods.
“Jason approaches the ball by pretty much putting it up in the air,” Nicklaus said in a 2016 interview with Golf.com. “[Rory] basically overpowers the golf course. And Jordan … what a short game.” That same year, however, Nicklaus said it would be tough to recreate what he, Player, and Palmer had because the rest of the field is so close.
“It certainly looks a little bit that way here today even though those three are exceptionally good,” Nicklaus said per USA Today. “You’ve got Rickie Fowler right there. Bubba [Watson] is there. You’ve got [Hideki] Matsuyama, and you’ve got just a host of good young players who really would not take much to jump right into that same consideration.”
Some feats in sports are hard to recreate. The original Big Three was perfect for its time, and the three names involved are still among the best to ever swing a club. McIlroy, Spieth, and Day might be all-time great players, but they would have to take it to an entirely different level if they ever wanted to become a Big Three.