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The Builders: golf’s influential figures

Here, sifted and compiled from a book’s worth of survey responses, are the people most credited by our survey group with creating the game you know and love. Some of the answers were obvious, others surprising. Here are the builders of golf
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The Builders: golf’s influential figures

Here, sifted and compiled from a book’s worth of survey responses, are the people most credited by our survey group with creating the game you know and love. Some of the answers were obvious, others surprising. Here are the builders of golf

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Some worked with their hands, others with their minds. Some played the game, others designed it. Some brought golf to the world, others brought the world to golf. Whoever they were, whenever they lived, the men and women on the following pages built the game, oftentimes from the ground up in their respective areas. In Kingdom’s first official survey of golf’s origins, we reached out to today’s builders—a wide cross-section of pros, executives, intellectuals, historians, architects and journalists from all over the world—and asked who they believed was most crucial to making golf the game it is today. Some of the answers were obvious, others surprising. Here, sifted and compiled from a book’s worth of responses, are the people most credited by our survey group with creating the game you know and love.

Here are the builders of golf

(Please note that a fair number of our respondents desired to remain anonymous.)

Arnold Palmer tracks his ball flight

(Almost) Everyone Agrees

OK, we know that putting Arnold Palmer first in a survey appearing in the magazine he co-founded is a bit obvious. But honestly, Palmer was the one figure most mentioned by our survey group, with 12% voting him as one of the top five most critical in building the game. “He was the archetype for the global face of the game on television as the modern professional golfer, an example of the athlete as businessman, a PGA TOUR leader, plus he reconnected American golfers to the origins of the game at a crucial moment,” summarized David Normoyle, golf historian who (full disclosure) currently is working to help tell Palmer’s story at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. But Normoyle hardly was alone: “While Jack Nicklaus was arguably the best golfer of all time and of their generation, it was Arnold Palmer who captured the imagination and the hearts of the public in a way that has never been done since,” offered Simon Cooper, owner of Precision Golf Ltd. in England. Many referenced Palmer’s making golf a mainstream sport—and mainstream entertainment, timed as he was with the rise of the TV era. Others pointed to Palmer’s character, “how he personifies the values of our beloved game,” and said his popularity helped to bind these values to golf in the public’s mind. Still others lauded Palmer’s comprehensive presence across golf’s spectrum, from a boy who worked on a golf course; to an amateur champ; to a champion pro; to a leader and celebrity who drove purses and popularity skyward; who became a businessman and a golf course designer; and finally an elder statesman whose influence continues to be felt. As one respondent added after putting Palmer atop his list: “Too bad it’s an obvious connection with AP in Kingdom, but facts are facts!”

Tiger Woods was another easy favorite, with 9% of our survey group putting him in the top five, including pro Martin Kaymer. “One can fill reams on what he has done to lift the sport’s profile, but simply put, the sport would not have seen a generation of stars who took to golf dreaming of emulating their idol, Tiger,” wrote Robin Bose, a writer and entrepreneur based in India. “He crossed boundaries of race and sport,” offered agent and former European Tour pro Andrew “Chubby” Chandler. “He transformed the perception of the game,” added Guy Kinnings, Ryder Cup Director and Deputy CEO at the European Tour. “Raised the bar”; “changed everything”; “an immeasurable impact”; and so on from others. As with Palmer, nearly all respondents at least mentioned Tiger, even if he wasn’t at the top of their lists. One has only to look at the reactions of current TOUR pros to Tiger’s recent auto accident to see his impact, numerous players dressing in Tiger’s signature red and black on course, and Collin Morikawa, in the midst of an interview about his WGC title, tearing up and thanking Tiger for all he’s done. Palmer himself believed Tiger was one of the biggest forces ever to hit the game: “We can argue about major championships and whether Tiger will ever surpass Jack’s 18 majors,” Palmer wrote for Golf Channel in early 2015. “But what can’t be argued is this: Tiger Woods is the most dominant, most skilled player we’ve ever seen.” A fine last word on Tiger’s importance, as far as we’re concerned.

Celebrating Bobby Jones’ achievements New York City-style, with a ticker tape parade

A Step Back

Bobby Jones and Old Tom Morris made comparable showings in our survey, with 5% of respondents believing one or both of the men were critical to golf’s evolution. Jones brought “color and charisma” to the game, writer Jim Black opined, while a few others offered variations on the theme that “any list like this has to include Jones.” Indeed. Where does one start? One of golf’s first true superstars, he’s the only man to take all of the majors (of his era) in a single year. Then he founded another major, which, taken with the founding of Augusta National Golf Club, would alone get him into the conversation of golf’s builders. He’s an inspiration to kids: he took Eastlake Golf’s Club junior championship at 9 and bested his father in a senior final at the age of 13. An inspiration to competitors, winning 13 of the 21 majors he entered (including four U.S. Opens). A credit to the game, once calling a two-stroke penalty on himself before losing the 1925 U.S. Open by one shot. And he was an inspiration beyond golf, earning two ticker tape parades in New York (in 1926 and in 1930). His Grand Slam of 1930 remains an incredible feat, almost as remarkable as his decision to quit competitive golf when he could have had a lucrative career as a pro. And here it’s worth mentioning that Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts, who co-founded the Masters with Jones, received a few nods from respondents as well, European Tour CEO Keith Pelley offering that when one is mentioning Jones, “it is impossible to separate them.”

As for Old Tom Morris, “The father of professional golf,” according to PGA Chief Executive Robert Maxfield, he was popular in our survey. “[He] took golf outside the narrow confines of first Fife and then Scotland,” Stewart Golf CEO Robert Hardie wrote. Respondents also noted his creating and winning the Open Championship; his abilities as a club builder, teacher and mentor; and even his role as a golf parent, famously teaching the game to his son Young Tom “Tommy” Morris. And then there’s the design work: Nearly 75 courses were created or remodeled by the elder Morris, including the Old Course at St Andrews. He designed Muirfield; Royal County Down; the Championship Courses at Royal Dornoch and Carnoustie; the Old Courses at Prestwick and Lahinch; and Machrihanish Golf Club, among others. “Whenever we play at St Andrews, you walk past the shop and you almost have to stop and think just how incredible the story is, and how big his impact on the game is,” wrote world No.54 Matt Wallace. Clearly a builder. We were surprised more didn’t include Young Tom Morris on their lists as well (some did). It was Tommy who won The Open Championship four times between 1868 and 1872, inventing new ways of playing (specifically with irons) as he went along. He understood the power of pro golfers to draw crowds, he challenged the old club system and the way pros were compensated, and he was one of the first to attract thousands of spectators to his matches. A celebrity and well-rounded golfer who won many of the events he entered, he was gracious and managed also to stay in the good graces of many of his opponents—creating the template for Palmer and other pros who would follow.

Alastair MacKenzie made a number of lists: “the fraternity of golf will forever stay indebted to this Scottish architect,” wrote one respondent, citing Augusta National as all the proof anyone needs of MacKenzie’s impact. Likewise, Seminole Golf Club mastermind Donald Ross appeared frequently enough, perhaps no surprise given his 400 designs helped to spread the game far and near. A.W. Tillinghast was in there as well, as was Charles Blair Macdonald, again no surprise; builders to be sure.

Seve Ballesteros during the 1985 Ryder Cup at The Belfry

Big Names

Our survey fractured rather quickly after Palmer, Woods, Jones and the Toms Morris, but from all of the various pros who were mentioned, Severiano Ballesteros did manage to get more collective love than anyone else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the European Tour’s Pelly rated him, describing Seve as “Quite simply, the man who drove the cause of European golf forward both in terms of the growth and popularity of the European Tour, and in the U.S., too. He also, of course, revolutionized the Ryder Cup post-1979.” Unquestionably Seve revitalized the event—via a European loss, no less, in 1983. In the locker room following the close defeat at the hands of the Nicklaus-led U.S. team 14 ½ to 13 ½, with the European team feeling deflated, Europe’s Paul Way told media of Seve’s reaction: “Seve was an inspiration, telling us: ‘This is not a defeat—this is a win.’ Two years later there were 40,000 there on the day at the Belfry to see us lift the Cup. It had all started two years before.” Seve’s story of humble origins was compelling and his passion was infectious; he was the whole package, some of our respondents wrote, with most lauding his spirit above all else. Seve said, “Wake up Europe. Yes you can!” offered Switzerland’s Philippe Hermann, of Green Grass Productions. And Europe did. Fittingly, Samuel Ryder also made it, with the PGA’s Maxfield offering, “Can you even imagine a world without the Ryder Cup?”

Annika Sorenstam received a fair number of Top 5 mentions: “She led the female revolution,” wrote Kinnings, and that’s about right. Co-Head of Sports Licensing at CAA, Kit Walsh added, “She made golf women cool,” and countless young girls would agree. Anya Alvarez, a former LPGA and Symetra Tour player, met Annika as a 13-year-old and later as a college player. Recounting her second meeting for the LPGA Womens’ Network, Alvarez wrote, “That interaction, along with the one as a 13-year-old, and all the moments I had before of watching her on TV of breaking records and breaking stereotypes, steered me away from self-doubt and towards self-belief.” With 93 pro wins, a place in the WGHOF, and businesses and course design work going strong, she’s definitely a game-builder.

Patty Berg appeared as well, with the PGA of America’s Earnie Ellison writing that she was “the LPGA and PGA’s original First Lady of Golf.” Ellison’s PGA associate Bob Denny concurred, pointing out that the LPGA co-founder “popularized clinics for all, and with no restrictions. Military, juniors, physically challenged, everyone.”

Se Ri Pak’s influence was enough to get her on a few lists, but we’re surprised she wasn’t on more. Anyone who watched the golf world change from the late 1990s through the early and mid 2000s understands Se Ri’s impact was monumental. When she joined the LPGA Tour in 1998 at the age of 20, she was one of three Korean women on tour. She took that year’s U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s PGA Championship, and 10 years later there were nearly 50, nearly all of them contenders. In roughly a decade between 2010 and July of 2020, women from South Korea won 19 of the 39 majors that were staged, and they’re still going strong. She also impacted the LPGA Tour as a whole, as LPGA champ Stacy Lewis pointed out in 2016: “Without the Korean and Asian TV rights, this tour four or five years ago might not be here anymore. We were at a point where we had 23 events and I think half of those were in Asia. So the Asia market basically supported us there for a couple of years and allowed us to get to where we are now. Se Ri’s a huge part of that.”

From 2010 on, it fell to LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan to pilot the tour through the changes, and he made a few respondent’s lists as well. Look for his impact to grow as he takes over the USGA this summer as its new CEO.

Nicklaus made the list, of course, his achievements undeniable, if not consternating for one respondent: “I can’t choose between Tiger and Jack. Can I put them together? The greatest.” In similar fashion, a fair number of respondents who included Jack only did so as part of “The Big Three” with Palmer and Gary Player. And most who mentioned the trio also brought Mark McCormack into the conversation. “He was the founder of IMG, which has gone on to contribute to golf in many ways; player management, tournament organization, sponsor representation, etc.,” offered Mike Round, Director of Administration at the Ladies European Tour. “He took the characters at the top of the game, and took them and the game around the world, truly making it into the spectacle that we now see,” added Simon Cooper. “Without him and his vision there is no way golf would have the same levels of global reach, sponsorship, coverage and interest, and we would be in a far poorer position (and without this platform the ‘Tiger effect’ would not have been able to have the same impact either).” Added agent Jay Burton, “On the commercial side of golf, Mark was clearly a pioneer.”

Walter Hagen made a few lists, with one respondent offering that Hagen played in an era in which the often working-class pros were not allowed in the clubhouse with the often-wealthy amateurs, but “by the end of his career (in which he won 11 Majors) the view of the Professional golfer had changed completely and they were treated as equals. He is owed a great deal of gratitude by today’s players!”

Likewise, Byron Nelson had a few fans, although none offered any real explanation of why he belonged on the list. His 1945 season might have played a part, in which Nelson won 11 consecutive tournaments, 18 total. Also, the HP Byron Nelson Championship, which launched in 1944 (now the AT&T Byron Nelson) was the first PGA TOUR event to be named for a professional golfer, and it remains one of only two, the other being the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Similarly, Sam Snead; five-time Open Championship winner James Braid; Dr. Frank Stableford; and Ben Hogan all appeared a few times. In Hogan’s case: Fourth all time in terms of Major wins (9, just behind Gary Player), his first Major came at the age of 34, and the last three came at 40, in a single season, 1953, in which Hogan won five of the six events he entered. He was prevented from vying for the 1953 PGA Championship because it ran at the same time as the Open Championship at Carnoustie (which he won) or who knows what might have been. Hogan’s 1953 still stands among the greatest single seasons in golf history, and that it came just a few years after a near-fatal car accident left him shattered is simply amazing. Beyond his playing career, his influence on swing theory and instruction is well documented. A builder to be sure.

And Now, Debate

Mary Queen of Scots made a few lists—though she was a footnote for one respondent, who thought she was overestimated: “The reference to Mary Queen of Scots is skewed and leaning on legend,” he wrote. “She was depressed and went to play golf after her husband was murdered; that caused the ruckus. She was not a history-maker for golf. She was a royal who played the game. Many more were playing before she lost her head.” “Not a history maker,” and yet here we are, 434 years after her death still talking about her. A [female] golf writer and survey respondent took a different view: “Mary gives us a point in history at which we can say, ‘There, right there, see? Women were playing golf in its earliest days.’ That touchstone is of vital importance for women. To have a future in something it helps to have a past in it. Maybe women were playing golf before Mary, but who were they? Historians might know, but for the rest of us, Mary gives us a foothold in the game. Critically important.”

As Black Girls Golf Founder Tiffany Fitzgerald once told Kingdom, “To be it, you’ve gotta see it,” and so for African American golfers a foothold is important as well, something acknowledged by many respondents. Charlie Sifford, the first African American to play on the PGA TOUR, was mentioned quite a few times, along with Lee Elder (who became the first African American to play in the Masters, in 1975). Less common but making appearances were Althea Gibson (first African American on the LPGA Tour); African American golf pioneer John Shippen (who competed in several U.S. Opens); golf tee inventor George Franklin Grant; Ann Gregory (first African American woman to play in a USGA championship (1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur)); George Adams and Helen Webb Harris, who founded the Royal Golf Club and Wake-Robin Golf Club, respectively; boxer Joe Louis, instrumental in supporting African Americans in the game; pro Ted Rhodes; and both Bill and Renee Powell. A solid amateur golfer, Renee’s father, William Powell, was the first African American to design, build (with his hands), own and operate a golf club, Clearview Golf Club, which Renee continues to operate today. She was the second African American on the LPGA Tour, but she’s achieved far more than that, too much to get into here. Suffice it to say that she joined Dame Laura Davies, Annika Sorenstam and the Princess Royal as one of the first seven women invited to join the R&A when it dropped its “men only” policy in 2015, and she remains the only American and the only golfer to have a building named for them at the University of St Andrews, where the women’s event is also named for her. As for Ted Rhodes, after playing in the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera Country Club, he’s widely regarded as being the first African-American professional golfer. He and fellow African American golfer Bill Spiller were instrumental in having the PGA remove its “Caucasians only” clause, but Rhodes was past his prime by the time golf genuinely admitted African Americans. Playing in United Golf Association events, Rhodes is said to have won more than 150 times, which is remarkable on any tour. Denied the chance to compete on equal footing with the pros of his day, we’ll never know how good he really was. And George Adams gets another nod here as a UGA founder.

African Americans aren’t the only marginalized group in golf, of course, and many of our respondents identified individuals who have sought to bring golf to the world and to make it more inclusive. Emma Villacieros was mentioned, with new LET CEO Alexandra Armas citing her role as a strong advocate for golf to join the Olympics. In a similar fashion, several respondents included Conrad Rehling on their lists, one referring to him as the “patron saint” of bringing golf to the Special Olympics. “Conrad didn’t forget those who may be forgotten. He elevated them.” Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez both made various lists, and both truly have made fantastic contributions to the game. Lesser known in the States but no less important to Robin Bose in India, Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal, whom Bose illuminated: “The contribution of this duo cannot be measured enough in the Indian and Asian context. In a country obsessed with cricket, Jeev and Arjun form a handful of athletes who grabbed headlines with their exploits outside the national pastime.”

Another entry we were pleased to see, this one from CAA’s Walsh: Hugh Edward Richardson, credited with introducing golf to the country of Tibet. For a game to be global it must travel, after all. Well done.

Harry Vardon teeing off at Fox Hills Golf Club, Staten Island, NY

Somebody Loves Me

Very few listed Harry Vardon, the six-time Open Championship victor for whom golf’s most common grip is named, but then perhaps our respondents knew that the grip actually was invented by Scottish amateur Johnny Laidlay and only adopted by Vardon. Likewise, Karsten Solheim, founder of PING and the Solheim Cup, had few fans, while modern course developer Mike Keiser had only one—and we’re guessing that particular respondent just wants a spot in Bandon Dunes’ Solstice Event!

We threw out numerous other single-vote results as they included current officers of various tours and golf-related companies, current TOUR pros, and other “currents” and “recents” who, while they certainly have merit in the golf world, as builders barely have had time to tee it up. Get back to us in ten years’ time.

And Don’t Forget…

Robert Adams Paterson and Coburn Haskell rolled in, inventors of the gutta-percha and wound balls, respectively; and Phil Young, Titleist founder. Journalist Martin Hardenberger recalled Young’s story, and Young did help golf ball quality to come up across the industry. Forgan of St Andrews founder Rober Forgan made a few lists, for oldest equipment firm (1860); as did “metal wood” inventor/TaylorMade founder Gary Adams; and Englishmen John Jacobs, Ken Schofield; and Keith McKenzie. Issette Miller, for founding the handicap system in 1893—what an impact she had! Horace Hutchinson, “the grandfather of golf journalism,” was in there, and Doc Giffin suggested Frank Chirkinian, the legendary CBS golf producer who made golf must-see TV. We’ll add Thomas Rodger to the list, the St Andrews photographer who shot the Toms Morris and other legends, and we’ll cheekily give a nod to all golf media, in fact. Finally, as one frustrated respondent pointed out, “Because the first golf shot ever hit is lost in a forgotten century and possibly somewhere else than Scotland or Holland or China…” we’ll never be able to name the original builder. Whoever he or she is, to that person and to all of those listed above, we offer a sincere “thank you.”

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Masters that changed golf

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