BY MARTIN VOUSDEN
One of golf’s best-known aphorisms is “Drive for show, putt for dough,” but your chance to make a putt is somewhat reduced if you can’t find the fairway, and then the green. At the very highest level the quality of ball-striking is such that tournaments are often won by the guy who has a hot putter that week, but week in and out driving is the bedrock on which a golfer’s game is built. Sam Snead went as far as to say that you should only practice driving and putting.
And as with putting, many players can drive the ball well for a limited period but few can maintain consistent excellence over the course of a career that lasts decades. No-one can do it well all the time — even the absolute best have their off days and weeks — but these golfers did it better for longer than anyone else who lived.
20. Harold Hilton
The Englishman with the marvelous middle name of “Horsfall” never turned pro but won two Opens at the end of the 19th century, four Amateur championships and a US Amateur, in the days when the very best were from the unpaid ranks. His most conspicuous quality was the straightness of his driving.
19. Tom Watson
Has a fast tempo but a great, simple, repetitive technique that gets the job done time and again. The greatest Major ever — 1977′s duel in the sun with Nicklaus — was decided on the 72nd hole when he split the fairway to set up his winning birdie. Like many in this list the quality of his ball-striking never left him but the golfing gods decide that very few can have it all for too long, so his putting stroke headed south.
18. James Braid
One of the Great Triumvirate, along with Vardon and Taylor, Braid was the longest driver of the three and found more than his fair share of fairways. Won his five Open Championships in a 10-year stretch and even at age 78 shot a gross 74. Went on to become a notable architect whose courses, not surprisingly, put a premium on good tee shots.
17. Lee Trevino
Like so many other great drivers, his stock-in-trade was a controlled fade that worked with remarkable consistency. But his real genius was that when he needed to draw the ball he could. Very few have ever controlled ball-flight with the unfailing accuracy of SuperMex so it was no surprise that when he joined the US Seniors Tour (as it was then) it became his personal retirement fund.
16. Robert Tyre Jones
Possibly the best there has ever been but the shortness of his career makes a true comparison with modern greats impossible. Thirteen Majors in seven years tells its own story and they were built on a loose, rhythmical, flowing swing that usually sent the ball exactly where it was meant to go.
15. Nick Faldo
Golf’s Greatest Living Englishman calculatedly sacrificed some of the length of his youth in order to develop the metronomic swing that gave him six Majors. The benefits were never more clearly demonstrated than at Muirfield in 1992 when, under pressure from John Cook, he nailed it on the 72nd hole to set up his championship winning par.
14. Joyce Wethered
Arguably the greatest woman golfer ever to pull on spikes, she was so impressive that even Bob Jones said he had never been so intimidated by anyone’s play. Henry Cotton added: “I do not think a golf ball has ever been hit, except perhaps by Harry Vardon, with such a straight flight by any other person.” She won five English Amateur and four Amateur Championships and retired far too early.
13. Byron Nelson
Also retired when still in his prime — at age 34 (because of haemophilia and a dislike of the Tour pro’s life) — and, unlike most in this list, eschewed a controlled fade or draw in favor of simply hitting it straight. It was something he did so well that in 1945 he won 18 tournaments, 11 of them on the bounce, for the greatest streak of all time.
12. Ernie Els
The affable South African does everything well, but it all starts on the teeing ground and in the modern era he has the winning combination of both length and accuracy. He’s such a powerful hitter that he can nudge his Titleist out there over 300 yards without apparent effort, so he invariably retains control.
11. Jim Furyk
US Open winners cannot afford to be wild off the tee and, while not up there with the longest in the game, Furyk’s unorthodox style gives him the repeatability for which most golf pros would sell their grandmothers. Now recovered from wrist surgery he perpetually demonstrates that anyone who can hit fairways and greens will be tough to beat.
Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today’s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book, With Friends Like These; A Selective History of the Ryder Cup, was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the Rare Birdie website.