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The Best Golfers You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of
Tiger Woods. Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer. Gary Player. You know every single one of these men and what they did, regardless if you’re an avid golf fan or not. Their accomplishments in the sport skyrocketed them beyond the simple notoriety among fans of golf, making them household names in American culture and beyond.
These golfers are legendary. The best ever.
But the game of golf has a long and distinguished history full of players dating back hundreds of years, many of whom were significant stars of their era. And then are those who were gifted with tremendous talent and ability that dazzled, but far too short to gain mainstream traction, whether by injury or a mysterious fade from grace.
XGolf Denver has a deep respect and admiration for the beautiful game of golf and its rich history and tradition. It’s in that spirit and honor that we would like to recognize some of the very best players in the history of golf — that you’ve probably never even heard of before.
And after you’re inspired by these obscure golfers, book a tee time with XGolf Denver! Playing on a golf simulator is a fantastic way to improve your swing and receive real-time analytics. At XGolf — home of the best golf simulator in the world — you don’t have to worry about the pace of play and there are metrics that you can’t get on an actual course or driving range without expensive tracking equipment.
Plus, at the XGolf Denver golf simulator, you can practice year-round — no matter the weather — play courses from around the world, and even sign up for golf lessons from a PGA professional!
Until we see you soon, XGolf Denver hopes you enjoy today’s post!
Born in 1911, and playing well before professional athletes were the country-wide (or even worldwide) celebrities that they are today, Ralph Guldahl has one of the most interesting and mysterious golf careers in the history of the sport. His story is nothing short of movie-worthy, rising to great heights, giving it all up, only to return dominant before completely vanishing. A true golf tragedy.
Guldahl’s career began in 1931 when he became the youngest player ever to win a PGA Tour event at 20 years old — a record which stood all the way until 2013 when Jordan Spieth won the John Deere Classic. Guhldahl then placed second at the 1935 U.S. Open, the country’s most prestigious golf tournament, at the age of 24. Unexpectedly, he gave it all up to become, get this, a car salesman!
He returned to golf the following year and beat legendary figures of the game such as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson — wow! In a three-year span between 1937-39, Guldahl won the Masters (took second twice) and won two U.S. Opens (and a seventh), which would be considered the greatest three-year stretch in professional golf. Guldahl then noticed a flaw in his swing through stop-motion photography, tried to fix it, and lost his swing completely, never winning again. Guldahl retired in 1942.
Way back in the day, most of the very best golfers in the world were actually amateur players. The money and organization were not the same and amateur athletics were considered purer (think the Olympics). Jerome Travers, known as Jerry, was one of the best amateur players of all time, renowned for his tremendous putting ability as well as a ruthless competitive drive.
Travers won four U.S. Amateur championships between 1906-1915, adding five Metropolitan Amateurs titles and a U.S. Open win to top it all off. Only the legendary Bobby Jones won more amateur titles than Travers. However, his career was short as he didn’t compete in several U.S. Amateurs and never competed in another U.S. Open after winning the title, retiring at just 28 years old. But even in his time, Travers never garnered the kind of recognition his accomplishments would seem to warrant, which may have contributed to his frustration and a resulting short career.
Perhaps the “best known” of the greatest golfers you’ve probably never heard of is Francis Ouimet, who had a book written about his incredible accomplishment (and a feature film) at the 1913 U.S. Open. Ouimet was an amateur golfer and businessman, but it was that U.S. Open that set him apart as it is still considered to this day as the greatest upset in golf history. Ouimet beat the best player of the era (and his idol), Harry Vardon, to win the 1913 title. Ouimet was American and Vardon was British, swelling the country with great pride for the youthful Ouimet.
He followed it up with a championship at the 1914 U.S. Amateur. But Ouimet was banned for eight years from all USGA events until 1922. Ouimet returned to glory at the 1931 U.S. Amateur, winning the title at age 38. Ouimet was also the first American captain at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The 2005 film, “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, tells a nice story of Ouimet’s life and is worth a watch.
Not hearing of Allan Robertson is nothing to feel ashamed about, even for the most dedicated golf fan. Robertson harkens back to the early days of the “modern” sport in the 1800s. He was a professional golfer, caddy and club- and ball-maker! Back then, golf used feather golf balls most frequently and the balls were indeed filled with, you guessed it, feathers! Imagine hitting that with old wooden clubs?!
Now knowing that, it’s infinitely more impressive knowing Robertson became the first golfer to ever break 80 out on the golf course in 1858, one year before his death. Robertson shot a 79 at the Old Course at St. Andrews (obviously!) and was widely regarded as the best player of his generation. The Open Championship was formed because golfers of the time established competition in 1860 to see who would follow Robertson as the “Champion Golfer” — won by his pupil, Old Tom Morris, perhaps the most legendary non-American golfer ever.
Alvin “Titanic” Thompson
Definitely earning one of the coolest nicknames in the game, Alvin “Titanic” Thompson was given that moniker by his peers because he simply sank everybody. So awesome! Thompson was an avid gambler (where he is arguably more notorious) and would tour the country as a professional golfer playing in money games at rich country clubs, sometimes for as much as $100,000, which was a ton of money back in the early 1900s!
Like a true hustler, Thompson would play 18 holes right-handed and win, then offer his opponent double-or-nothing if he played left-handed. What he didn’t tell them was that he was actually a left-handed player, but was just that good with both hands! Ben Hogan was witness to one of these money matches and said later that Thompson was “the greatest shot-maker I’ve ever seen … you can’t beat him!” Unfortunately for the game of golf, Thompson never played on the PGA Tour as a true “professional” golfer, dryly quipping later in his life that he “could not afford the cut-in pay.” Classic Titanic.
Truly establishing any one of these great unknown players as the best of the group would probably be hard to do. But if you had to pick one, Moe Norman might be your guy. Affectionately called “Pipeline Moe”, was a dominant player out of Ontario, Canada who hit the ball incredibly straight. Norman only played 27 PGA Tour events but received praise years later by players like Vijay Singh (who called Norman “God’s gift to golf”) and Tiger Woods because of his perfect swing plane.
Norman began his career in 1957, yet, never won an event on tour despite making the cut in 25 of his 27 career events. Norman returned home to Canada as somewhat of a golf outsider due to his quirky personality. He was much different than the accepted standard of the day and was never welcomed warmly on the Tour. Norman won 55 Canadian Tour events, held 33-course records, scored 17 hole-in-ones, and broke 60 three times. He beat Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Lee Trevino to win two Canadian PGA Championships in 1966 and 1974. Not too shabby, Pipeline Moe.
Eddie Pearce might be the poster child for a player who had such incredible talent and ability out on the golf course but never managed to transition that ability into measurable wins or accomplishments on the PGA Tour. Ben Crenshaw once said he thought Pearce had the most “gorgeous, powerful swing” he’d ever seen.
Pearce won junior and amateur tournaments by vast margins and left college widely considered to be the next Jack Nicklaus. Unfortunately for Pearce, he enjoyed the perks of being a popular golfer a little too much off the golf course and was often criticized for not taking his game and career seriously enough. He never won on the PGA Tour, but his game and raw skill were admired by his peers as one of the most talented golfers they ever saw.
Chick Evans was introduced to the game of golf at a young age, caddying at just 8 years old at the Edgewater Golf Club in Chicago. Evans went on to win the Western Open as an amateur in 1909 (back then the Western Open was considered somewhat of a major), the first amateur to win the prestigious event.
Evans was the first golfer ever to win both the U.S Amateur and the U.S. Open in the same year, accomplishing the near-impossible feat in 1916. The only other man in the history of golf to accomplish that was the great Bobby Jones. However, Evans felt lots of pressure to turn pro because of his ability — which wasn’t uncommon in that era — but he believed the game was pure and shouldn’t be played for money. So you could say he was the antithesis of Titanic Thompson.
Perhaps the only thing that held Walter Travis back from popularity and fame today was time. Incredibly, Travis never even touched a golf club until he was 35 years old! See, there’s still a chance you could become a golfing great … well, maybe.
Travis won his first tournament just a month after picking up the game and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur Championships only two years after that. By 39, he won two of three U.S. Amateurs and became the first American to travel to Great Britain and win the British Amateur championship. He capped off an amazingly unlikely career at the age of 53 with a win at the Metropolitan Amateur in New York in 1900.
John Ball Jr.
John Ball Jr. was the British version of our Bobby Jones, which is saying a lot! Ball Jr. won eight British Amateur championships, one British Open (Open Championships they call it now), and captured the hearts of his nation. He became the first amateur player in England to be named by the Royal Empire as an Immortal.
He took fifth at the British Open in 1878 at just 17 years old and rattled off an impressive run of amateur titles between 1888 and 1912 when he was 51. Ball Jr.’s best year was in 1890 when he held both the British Amateur and British Open championships at the same time. Bobby Jones, who completed the career Grand Slam in 1930, is the only other player ever to hold both those titles in the same year.
This Brit was a trailblazer for foreign golfers in the United States, shocking the nation in 1911 when he became the first non-American player ever to win the U.S. Amateur. And the way it all went down was one of the most incredible strokes of luck you’ll find in golf’s illustrious history.
Playing in a playoff hole of the 1911 U.S. Amateur against Fred Herreshoff, Hilton shanked his three wood offline and toward a rock bed just to the right of the first hole’s green. But instead of bouncing lord knows anywhere, or simply resting in a difficult lie of rocks, the ball ricocheted off the rocks and right onto the putting surface! Herreshoff was so stunned, he hit a terrible second shot and carded a bogey. Hilton two-putted for par, scored an unprecedented win, and secured his place in golf history. Hilton won four British Amateurs and two British Opens. Back at Apawamis Club in Rye, New York, where the two players battled for the 1911 title, they still call it Hilton’s Rock.
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