One of the best ways to get a good sports conversation going is to rank the “all-time” best at any position in any sport. It is fun because it is subjective, can cause arguments, and usually brings about a wide variety of opinions and reasons for ranking one player over another. Ranking golfers is one of my favorites. The game has been around for so long, there are so many different criteria, and people get emotional about certain players based on a lot of factors. You can consider major championships, tournament wins, top 10 finishes, popularity, skill, and more as your criteria but the bottom line is that choosing the top golfers ever is a fun and subjective exercise.
12. Nick Faldo
With 3 Masters and 3 Open Championships to his name, Nick Faldo was one of the game’s greats. “Sir Nick” won 30 European titles and 41 total professional golf tournaments, but it is those 6 majors that stand out and lead him to the final spot on this list. When his golf career ended, Nick Faldo became one of the premier voices of the game and took over as the CBS Lead Golf Analyst. He dominated world golf at the expense of his chief rival, Greg Norman, but they were both great ambassadors for the game and incredible competitors. Faldo was known for his composure under pressure and an intimidating presence on the course and if he was in sniffing distance in the last round of a tournament, you always thought he would pull it out.
11. Gary Player
Gary Player is still one of the most important international ambassadors golf has even seen. Coming from South Africa when golf had been dominated by golfers from 2 countries, American and England, Player was as important as he was dominant. He is also one of only 5 other players to own a career grand slam. Gary Player won 9 major championships including 3 each at the Master’s and Open Championship. While not all of his tournaments were on the PGA Tour, he is credited with winning over 150 golf tournaments worldwide and earned either a PGA or Senior Tour win in 5 different decades. Player shot a 64 in the final round of the 1978 Master’s to record the best final round in the tournament’s history and earn his third and final Green Jacket. Gary Player was a dominant golfer and a great ambassador for the worldwide explosion of golf.
10. Byron Nelson
There is a stretch of golf, spanning a few months, where Byron Nelson played better than anyone in the history of the game. The truth is, 11 PGA Tour wins would make an outstanding career for most golfers. Byron Nelson won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945, one of those being the PGA Championship. When you notice that the streak happened in 1945, you may want to chalk it up to inferior competition until you remember that both Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were playing at the same time and in the same tournaments. While Nelson won 5 majors and over 50 tournaments, that 11 tournament win streak may be the greatest 3 months of golf anyone has ever played.
9. Tom Watson
Tom Watson in the 2009 British Open is still one of the best “feel good” stories in golf. Standing over that final putt on 18, it was like his age finally betrayed him, but that was just the capper of an incredible career. With 5 Open Championships, one of the greatest shots in the history of the US Open, and a 10 year Master’s stretch that you could put up against any other golfer in history, Watson was a master. He outdueled the great Jack Nicklaus on a few occasions, with the 1977 British Open one of the most dominant performances by 2 golfers in the same tournament ever. With those 8 majors and 39 PGA Tour wins, his numbers stack up well, but it is those memorable moments that stand out and set Watson apart.
8. Phil Mickelson
There are some really good golfers left on this list, and some people will not put Mickelson this high. I have to admit, for one thing I really like watching him play. For another thing, he is arguably the greatest left-handed golfer of all time. He is also still playing and could add to his 5 majors and 44 PGA Tour wins. He was the runner-up at the US Open 6 other times also, and if just one of those is a win then the argument of Phil being top 10 is no longer an argument. In an era where Tiger was basically a golfing machine, Phil was the regular guy. He would pull out his driver when everyone else was hitting a long iron. He would hit a flop shot into a 4 inch window when everyone else would just punch out. He is great, but he is also fun to watch, and is as skilled around the greens as anyone in the history of the game.
7. Walter Hagen
Walter Hagen cracks the top 10 because his record of 11 professional majors stood until the 1960s, and he won an additional 5 Wester Opens during his career as well. He was the first American to win an Open Championship and he won 4 additional British Opens during his career. He is missing a Master’s to complete his career slam, but he dominated golf as a professional in an era when amateurs like Bobby Jones ruled the day. Whatever else he did, Walter Hagen won tournaments to the tune of 34 PGA Tour wins with the record 11 majors that lasted for years after his retirement.
6. Arnold Palmer
Every sport needs “that guy.” The one who will promote the sport, increase its popularity, and be one of its best players all at the same time. In the game of golf, nobody won or lost tournaments like “The King” Arnold Palmer. It was his charisma and flair that brought golf into the living rooms of the masses, created “Arnie’s Army”, and increased tournament purses in a way that no other golfer in history (including Tiger) ever has. He did not end his career with a grand slam, but he had 7 majors and 55 PGA Tour wins. He did not have the “classic” golf swing and he did not even really look like a golfer, but there was something about him. Arnold Palmer was Deion Sanders and Magic Johnson on the golf course, and he will always be remembered as “that guy” in a sport people like him do not come along very often.
5. Bobby Jones
Many people may not rank Bobby Jones as one of the top 5 greatest golfers ever, but for his short tenure in the game he won about every tournament you could possibly win. Bobby Jones never turned pro, and as such, is the only amateur on this list. In an era when sports had greats like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones was the biggest draw in sports. His stats for the time he played are staggering. He played in 31 majors and won 13 of them. If you are not good at doing math in your head, that is a 42% clip. He actually won 42% of the majors that he started and that includes winning the grand slam in 1930 (US and British Opens and Amateurs). In addition to his staggering statistics, Bobby Jones helped organize Augusta National and is known as one of the founders of the Masters. It may be difficult to place a golfer who retired from the game at the age of 28 in the top 5, but his talent and contributions to the game of golf are legendary.
4. Sam Snead
Tied with Tiger with the most PGA Tour victories ever at 82 wins, “Slammin” Sammy Snead is one of the greatest champions in PGA Tour history. If Snead had completed the career grand slam, he would probably be number 3 on this list, but with 7 majors and 0 US Opens, he “slid” to 4th. Snead had one of the best, most efficient swings in the history of gold, and that can be seen in the longevity of his career. In 1979, at the Quad Cities Open, a 67 year old Sam Snead shot a 66 and remains the only player to shoot below his age in tournament play. On top of his career achievements, he was one of golf’s greatest ambassadors and endeared himself to golfers and fans everywhere.
3. Ben Hogan
Hogan is one of the greatest shotmakers that the game of golf has ever seen. Hogan won 9 majors including the elusive career grand slam and a total of 64 PGA tour events. He is still the only player in golf history to win the Masters, US Open, and British Open in the same calendar year. Ben Hogan was a practice machine, and he played the game with more feel than maybe anyone in golf history. He did not write down yardage, he “felt” the distance to the pin. He would study a course and get to know everything about it and then play from that knowledge. Hogan was not overly charismatic and was not a great ambassador for the game like many of the greats, but he was a great shot maker and one of the greatest golfers ever.
2. Jack Nicklaus
Nicknamed the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus is either first or second on every “Greatest Golfer” list ever created. His numbers are incredible and his effect on the game maybe even greater. Most people know that he is the career leader in major championships with 18. Not everyone knows that he finished in second place in an additional 19 majors giving him an unheard of 37 top-2 finishes in the sports most important tournaments. For those who consider major championships the gold standard for ranking golfers, Nicklaus is the clear winner. Not to mention that he played against some of the greatest golfers ever in Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and Lee Trevino, 3 of whom also made this list. Many of us may remember a 46 year old Nicklaus winning his 6th Masters as being one of the greatest, most iconic moments in golf history. To see the Golden Bear walk off the course as a champion in 1986 was special and the final major for the king of major championships.
1. Tiger Woods
I would guess that 9 out of 10 lists would have either Tiger or Nicklaus on top. Tiger is second all time with 15 majors, tied for first with 82 tournament wins, and he won all 4 majors consecutively. Those numbers alone would easily make the case that Tiger is the greatest ever. Add to it his popularity, endorsements, and sheer dominance of the game for so many years and you have the greatest golfer ever. He not only dominated the PGA tour with his physical ability, but there was the mental and psychological aspect of his game that is difficult to explain. He almost willed himself to win. Watching him on the golf course was like watching Jordan, Brady, or Gretzky take over a game, but when Tiger did it, he did it by himself. He won the Masters by 12 and the US Open by 15, and he did it in an era when there were at least 10 other golfers in every tournament that he played that had the talent to win.
While majors are important and overall wins show consistency and heart, there is something more than numbers that lead you to an all-time list. Whether it be a golfer’s reputation, impact on the game, or just the fact that you enjoyed watching them play, you could have 200 people make a top-12 list of golfers and have 200 different lists. The other fun thing about that is that nobody would be wrong. These are our 12, and I hope it is evident why each one made the cut.