When you talk to golfers from my generation (boomers), there are plenty of opinions on the best professional player of all time. I wanted to take this further and consider the question, “Who has given back to the modern game the most, Palmer or Woods?”
I will define “giving back” by what each player did to promote it, bring people to it and how much they gave of themselves to the fans. I know whom I would choose.
First, let’s run a comparison. Palmer emerged on the scene in an era after Hogan, Nelson and Snead. While Ben and Sam continued to play, Byron was satisfied biding his time tending to his ranch. Palmer was the new kid on the block, a chiseled specimen from western Pennsylvania that made swings some referred to as “a drunk trying to fit a key in a door”. There was plenty of movement but the powerful lash and helicopter finish brought out a myriad of fans that swung the club in the same fashion. They just didn’t get the same results.
Debate all of his attributes but the thing about Palmer was how he engaged with his fans. When he looked at his gallery they believed he was looking directly at them. He’d nod or acknowledge people in his own way. He wanted you there. He was about to take you on a journey that guaranteed thrilling shots crafted with bravado. Palmer may not have won but his army knew he wouldn’t have done as well if they hadn’t been with him.
On the opposite end of the spectrum sits Woods, one of the games greatest players at the turn of the century. Argue it anyway you like but in my opinion he did win the modern Grand Slam. He hit shots no one else could conceive. When a putt had to fall, it fell. He willed the ball into the hole. In a similar fashion Tiger walked into a period of golf history looking for the next icon (Nicklaus).
However Woods played in his own controlled world. Of course the media attention differed significantly from both time periods. Perhaps that is what necessitated Tiger’s steely demeanor. During his run from 2000 – ’08 he kept everyone out of his world. That worked until the 2009 Thanksgiving Day Massacre.
While that is another story, the fact is Woods never felt like he needed anyone. The galleries were more of an inconvenience rather than an asset. He never looks at a spectator, he look through them. I never saw him signing autographs for hours. Oh he might give a kids clinic but he’s not touchy/feely. His concentration is admirable and perhaps the best the game has ever seen. Yet in no way does he connect with people like Palmer. He chooses not to.
Both players have brought people to the game for different reasons. Tiger’s followers are looking for that “I am Tiger Woods” mystique. They want to be great. They want to beat the hell out of someone.
Palmer’s crowd just wants to play. They want to have the chance to hit that one miracle shot in the same way Arnie did. If it doesn’t happen today they figure they’ll get a chance at it tomorrow. They play knowing if they hit that “one shot” it doesn’t matter if their score totals 98. They’re the ones sitting around the 19th hole buying rounds. The King would approve
Debate the question all you want. Cross over generations if you like. There is no correct answer, just varying opinions. Yet if you look at history, it’s doubtful Tiger and the players of his generation would have it as good as they do without Palmer. Likewise Palmer benefitted from Snead, Hogan and Nelson. Pay it forward. That has always been the game’s mantra. Tiger still has plenty of opportunities. I hope he takes them.