In the Golf Paper

Peter Higgs: Three musketeers can ride to rescue

CartoonOne problem  with musical acts is that their names can be very deceptive. Take the Alabama 3, for example. They are not from Alabama and there’s more than three of them.

In fact, the nine-piece band is from Peckham, south London, home of Del Boy and Rodney, and  provide the haunting  title music to  The Sopranos, which is possibly appropriate as their line-up includes  the son of  a Great Train Robber.

The Big Three, on the other hand, were far more straight forward. They were what it says  on the tin, a trio and they were big. Or to be more precise they had a big sound, created by  their own specially designed massive amplifiers, known as coffins, which caused such a stir that they even built one for Paul McCartney.

On the back of the Mersey Beat craze this group of  Liverpool loud boys, formed in January 1961, had a hit single called Some Other Guy  before fading into obscurity.

In doing so they were destined to have less influence on the future of the human race than Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

These legendary golfers were also named The Big Three by agent Mark McCormack in 1962, the year in which they held all four Major championships between them.

And while not suggesting for a moment that the creator of the International Management Group (IMG) lifted the name from a bunch of long-haired rockers it was a heck of a good marketing trick.

McCormack was the manager of all three players and when Nicklaus, at the age of 22, won the US Open for his first professional and first Major win , beating Palmer in the process, the stage was set.

As Palmer stated  at the time, in what was surely one of the most prescient comments in golf history: “Now the big guy is out of the cage everyone better run for cover.”

Golf was ready to take off. And thanks to this awesome threesome take off it did.

The Open Championship was on the rise, due to the inspiration of the charismatic Palmer, who not only turned up to compete where many of his fellow Americans had stayed at home, but won in such thrilling style in 1961 and 1962 that The R & A was forced to introduce stricter crowd controls for the 1963 event.

Television was breaking through and  bringing the sport to the masses and millions, particularly in America, turned on to watch  the duels between the new household names led by McCormack’s  trio of superstars.

Much credit has been given to Tiger Woods in recent years for enabling today’s professionals to earn fortunes from the huge prize funds available but they also owe a debt of gratitude to the Big Three who started the gravy train rolling.

Interestingly, when Nicklaus arrived to complete McCormack’s three-man elite, Palmer, in terms of Major championship success, was on the wane.

After 1962 he was to add only one more Major to his list (making seven in total), the 1964 Masters. Yet his battles with his rivals made for such gripping TV and live action that ‘The King’ contributed immeasurably to golf’s upsurge in popularity.

During the Sixties Palmer won five Majors but was second another nine times. In that decade the three of them won 16 Majors and were the runners-up 20 times. For seven successive years one of them won the Masters. That’s what you call competition.  And no wonder they named  it a golden age of golf.

Golf has always loved its three-man rivalries. The Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid was the first to capture the public’s imagination as they dominated the sport around the turn of the 19th/20th century winning 16 of 21 Open Championships between  1894 and 1914.

A collective title that evokes images of plus fours and tweed caps is hardly likely to be revived in the modern age. But 50 years on we are ready to acclaim the latest Big Three.

The new world No.1 Jordan Spieth, the man he deposed Rory McIlroy and the 2015 US PGA champion Jason Day are, we’re told, ready to lift the sport to a higher level, just as Palmer, Nicklaus and Player did half a century ago.

Can they do it and does golf need it ? The answer to those questions is yes and yes. The decline of  Tiger has left a huge hole, which needs filling. Such was his impact on world sport that no-one, on their own, could do the job. But three of them together? What an exciting possibility.

They are certainly  some threeball: McIlroy with four Majors by the age of 26, Spieth , at 22, winning the first two Majors of 2015 and contending in the other two, and Day, 27, setting the all-time Major championship score in claiming the US PGA title. Exciting or what ?

Comparisons may be odious but there’s even a match-up between the past and present. Spieth is Nicklaus, the man with the greatest mind, McIlroy is the swashbuckling Palmer, and while Day, also maybe closer in style to Palmer than Player, the Australian has the ability to appeal to the wider world beyond America that the Black Knight from South Africa did so successfully.

Before Rory fell  on his ankle his admirers claimed the Ulsterman, when on his game, was head and shoulders above the rest. Not any more. If golf is played in the six inches between the ears Spieth,  though not the most athletically gifted, has a distinct advantage.

When it’s about sweet ball-striking and the ability to overpower a course then Day can give McIlroy a run for his  millions. Which makes the immediate future look decidedly rosy. Speaking of whom (Rosie that is)  the likes of Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Ricky Fowler, Dustin Johnson  and all your favourites will be keen to join the party and not be left with their noses pressed to the window.

Yet just as the likes of Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin and Johnny Miller interrupted the cosy domination of the Big Three to achieve successful careers, so will today’s challengers enjoy their apple-cart upsetting triumphs.

With that in mind let’s hope the Three Musketeers really do take command.

Golf needs superstars and a trio going head-to-head would be the headline-grabbing, TV bonanza of the administrators’ dreams.

Without that happening, as the Big Three once sang, it would be left to Some Other Guy. And I can’t think who.

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