The Origins of Golf’s Big Three
Posted on September 6, 2017
The popularization of golf, particularly televised golf, was due in part to the legends Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, the Big Three. Their storied rivalries helped propel golf into the hearts of fans worldwide. How did the Big Three come to be such a dominant force in golf, aside from raw talent? It was with the help of sports agent Mark McCormack.The legendary competitions between the Big Three spans hundreds of tournaments over multiple decades from the late 1950s to 1990s, both on the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour Champions (formerly the Senior PGA Tour and the Champions Tour) as seniors. The year that brought the Big Three into the limelight was 1962. However, the rivalry began a year earlier when Gary Player beat out Arnold Palmer at the 1961 Masters tournament. Palmer looked to be winning until a costly sand-trap at the 18th hole gave Player the win and the green jacket.
At the 1962 Masters in April, Palmer arrived at Augusta determined to make up for his failure the year prior. After the final round Palmer, Player and Dow Finsterward, were tied at eight under par, 280, which gave way to the first three-way playoff in Masters history. The 18-hole playoff ended with Palmer shooting sensationally on the back nine to claim his third green jacket. This was the first Masters tournament Jack Nicklaus played in as a professional, he finished tied for 15th.
A couple months later in June, ‘King’ Palmer found himself in another major playoff at the U.S. Open, this time facing off against the fresh face of Jack Nicklaus. While the two met in an 18-hole playoff the fans who were loyal to Palmer, who’d been on the tour for a few years now, weren’t so kind to Nicklaus. The ‘Golden Bear’ was unnerved by the crowd and went on to dethrone the ‘King’ to claim his first professional and major tournament win.
The King, Palmer, would reign supreme at the next major The Open Championship in July. The following week the ‘Black Knight’, Gary Player, would emerge on top of the field and win the PGA Championship, golf’s final major of the season. So that’s all four majors in 1962 won by the Big Three. The Big Three also competed that year at the World Series of Golf (now the PGA Grand Slam of Golf), in which the major winners from the year played against each other in a 36-hole event. The young Nicklaus won the event with Player and Palmer tied for second.Enter Mark McCormack, sports agent who was representing Arnold Palmer at the time. McCormack quickly added Player and Nicklaus as clients. He gave the trio the moniker of the “Big Three” and, along with securing them individual endorsements, packaged them together for exhibition matches. They filmed a television show together entitled “Big Three Golf” in which they were pitted against each other at venues around the world. They initially filmed eight matches which aired in 1965. They filmed a second season with four matches. The trio’s third season was themed “The Big Three in Britain” where they played at Gleneagles, Carnoustie and St. Andrews. The series ended with them playing in Kasumigaseki, Nagoya and Osaka, Japan.
The Big Three dominated professional golf in the 60s and the 70s. In the 60s alone they won a combined seven of 10 PGA Tour money titles and 17 of the 40 major tournaments of the decade, and Palmer won four of the 10 Vardon Trophies for low scoring average. Their domination on the golf course led well into the next few decades. Gary Player holds a career 24 PGA Tour wins with 9 major championships, Arnold Palmer has a career 62 PGA Tour wins with 7 major championships, and Jack Nicklaus holds 73 PGA Tour wins with a record 18 major championships.