News & Opinion

Gray area: Woods, Snead and 82*

Tiger Woods and Sam Snead share PGA Tour's all-time victories mark, but it should come with an asterisk

There’s one thing to remember about Tiger Woods’ tying Sam Snead atop the PGA Tour’s all-time victory list with 82 wins.

Number 82 comes with an asterisk. It is 82*.

This isn’t the fault of Woods. It is the fault of the PGA Tour, which has the least-accurate historical record-keeping of any major professional sport, and worse, holds no inclination to fix it.

2019 BMW Championship
Tiger Woods, with 82 PGA Tour victories, ought to rank ahead of Sam Snead and his 82 titles, Gary Van Sickle writes.

How many career victories does Snead have? That should be a simple question. It’s not. There are at least three different answers, depending upon when you asked.

If we time-travel to 1988, a PGA Tour official media guide would show that Snead had 84 official Tour victories then. So, Woods wouldn’t have tied Snead for the record; he’d still trail by two.

Let’s go to late 1989, after a PGA Tour-commissioned book, “The History of the PGA Tour,” was published. In the book, a panel of experts (including too many PGA Tour paper-pushers and not enough actual golf historians) decided which tournaments were official throughout history. Their findings changed the victory totals of a number of players, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gene Sarazen. And Snead, of course. His total was reduced to 81. Today, that would mean Woods already has passed Snead.

Fast-forward to 1995, when the PGA Tour was the last to know that the British Open – or Open Championship, as the Brits prefer – was kind of a big deal. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It has been only 24 years since the PGA Tour decided to acknowledge the Open as an official PGA Tour victory. I guess the Tour wanted to make sure that the Open’s first 135 years weren’t some kind of fluke. Anyway, adding the British lifted Snead’s “accepted” victory total to its current 82 level.

So, how many victories should Snead have? The unsatisfying answer from Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters that we’re supposed to accept is, “However many we say he has.”

The forerunners of the PGA Tour date to the early 1930s, but even when Snead was winning prolifically in the ’40s, there was no official PGA Tour organization. Tournaments were held by promoters to sell tickets and make money. The PGA of America, holders of the PGA Championship, originally was the tour in charge, but touring professionals split from the club pros to form the PGA Tour in 1968, and that’s when some important records were irretrievably lost.

Mistakes happen. The PGA Tour’s attempt to rewrite history with that 1989 book, approved by commissioner Deane Beman, was worse. The effort put forth by the panel of experts was minimal, and the results were unsatisfactory.

The PGA Tour brought Snead to New York City for a promotional book tour. It was arranged for me to have some interview time with Snead. The Tour expected him to be happy about the other part of the book, a mathematically amateurish ranking system based on top-10 finishes that declared Snead, with his seven major championships, to be the greatest tour player of all time, not Jack Nicklaus, with his 18 major titles. Snead was 77 by then, prone to rambling, and he alternated between telling dirty jokes and griping about his victory total being cut to 81. I had a difficult time trying to keep The Slammer on topic. He kept grousing about his missing wins.

“Deane told me they found three more; then somebody got in there and knocked the props out from under me,” Snead said. “How can one victory be official and one be unofficial when you have the same [bleeping] players every week?”

Snead died in 2002, four days before his 90th birthday. If he were alive today, he certainly would congratulate Woods for his achievements but just as certainly would give us an earful about his record. The PGA Tour credits Snead with 42 other victories and six international wins that don’t count in his official total.

There may never be such a thing as a correct, exact total of Snead’s victories. Too many historical records have been lost, and judging what should and shouldn’t count as a relevant tournament seven decades ago is an inexact guessing game.

Golf statistician and historian Sal Johnson did some deep-dive research for a story we produced a few years ago for Sports Illustrated. Johnson set the minimum for what an official tournament should be at 54 holes, a field of at least 20 players and an individual competition (not a two-man team event). Fourteen of Snead’s 82 victories didn’t meet that minimum. Among the rejects were Snead’s first two Bing Crosby Pro-Am titles, shortened to 18 and 36 holes by bad weather in 1937 and ’38, respectively; and five team titles.

Six more titles were added, including the 1949 North and South Open, which wasn’t counted even though the 1941 North and South Open did count.

That left Snead with 74 victories. Woods had 77 at the time, and I wrote the what-if story from the point of view that Woods already had passed Snead.

The concept of refiguring what-counts-and-what-doesn’t 75 years ago turns into a rabbit hole from which there is no logical escape.

Applying modern standards would alter other significant records. If team titles don’t count, Byron Nelson’s record 11 straight victories would be cut to 10 and his 18-victory season in 1945 would be reduced to 17 because one win was the Miami International Four-Ball, which Nelson won with partner Jug McSpaden.

There are other gaping holes in the Tour’s records. The main one worth mentioning is Byron Nelson’s streak of finishing in the money in 113 consecutive tournaments. It was broken by Tiger Woods, who extended his streak to 142 tournaments. Except, Johnson noted, from the 1939 PGA Championship through the 1950 Los Angeles Open, Ben Hogan was in the money 177 events in a row.

Did Hogan maybe miss a cut during that time and therefore not appear in the final tournament results, which happened occasionally? Did he have a missed cut that is unfindable because it didn’t appear in a newspaper box score? Possibly. The same can be said of Nelson’s record, which the Tour accepted on the basis of an Oklahoma golf statistician’s say-so. Neither proposed record is bulletproof.

Woods’ streak included 61 events that had no cut. Likewise, Hogan and Nelson played in events that had no cut (the Masters didn’t start one until 1957) but paid only a limited number of places. The record, technically, is not cuts made but finishes in the money. The mark for consecutive cuts made, counting only events with 36-hole cuts, should be 101 by Jack Nicklaus, according to Johnson.

So, we truly can’t count on some of golf’s numbers. All we can do is live with the Tour’s vagaries and these statistical anomalies. Me, I think Woods already is the real all-time leader in victories, at 82. You might think Snead is until or unless Woods gets to 85, past the 84 wins for which Snead used to be credited. They are open to interpretation.

Time and the Tour march on. So does Tiger. All we can realistically do now is kiss somebody’s asterisk.

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