Mark McCormack, Major Winners, and the Rise of Golf on T.V.
The moniker “The Big Three” was given to Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus in the early 1960s by their shared manager, Mark McCormack. McCormack founded the now well-known International Management Group (IMG). Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus were among his first clients.
The three young golfers first played together in an exhibition match with Sam Snead on December 30, 1961 at the Country Club of Miami in a made-for-television match. Gary Player won that match, but the three would battle on in a fierce rivalry for decades.
The three found themselves thrown together often and the year 1962 synched their bond and their collective title as “The Big Three.” That year, the three together won all 4 of the year’s majors. Palmer taking the Masters and the Open Championship, Nicklaus the U.S. Open, and Player the PGA Championship. That year the three also participated in the World Series of Golf.
McCormack continued to represent each of the golfers individually while also packaging them together for various pursuits. The rise of television also brought the three together and further cemented not only their golfing relationship, but also their friendship.
“Big Three Golf” was a made-for-television series of golf matches between the three. The first season, in 1964, included four rounds at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio and four rounds at Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. In 1965 the series featured two rounds at Firestone, and two at Indian Wells. This was followed by The Big Three in Britain, where they faced off at Gleneagles, Carnoustie, and St. Andrews and ended in a draw, a tie breaker in Puerto Rico, and The Big Three in Japan.
Throughout the ’60s, The Big Three dominated golf. They won four of 10 Vardon Trophies for low scoring average, seven of 10 PGA Tour money titles and 17 of the decade’s 40 majors.
The Big Three spent years traveling around the world, playing in exhibition matches and filming for television audiences. It was these years that brought them closest as the golfers and their families spent a lot of time together on these travels. These matches designed for just The Big Three were unlike other tournaments where plenty of other golfers and their families were present. Traveling together, rooming together, and even vacationing together and staying in one another’s homes brought the three and their families very close, forming life-long friendships.
In the 1970s and 80s, Nicklaus and Player both left IMG for their own management companies. However, even after the formal arrangement with IMG ended, the name The Big Three remained. The three men continued to play, travel, compete, vacation, and spend time together on the regular tour and on the Senior Tour.
The Big Three were largely responsible for the growth and success of the Senior (now Champions) Tour, attracting spectators and television audiences to see the game’s greatest legends continue to compete against one another. In 2012, The Big Three came together yet again as the Honorary Starters for the Masters, a tradition that lasted until Arnold Palmer’s death in 2016. Nicklaus and Player continued the tradition in memory of Palmer in 2017.