20 Best Golfers of All Time
20 Greatest Golfers of All Time
The Masters is right around the corner, which once again brings the sport of golf to a world stage and the forefront of the sporting world. The start of modern golf’s most prestigious tournament also tends to spark one of the most hotly contested debates in the history of sport, and begs the question, "Who are the greatest golfers of all time?" While it's no easy task to formulate such a list, given the various advancements of the sport and fluctuating degrees of competition over the years, here are our choices for the 20 greatest golfers of all time. The criteria for these rankings are as follows (in no particular order): wins, major championships, accolades, awards and accomplishments, the era in which they played and overall impact on the game of golf.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS
20. Vijay Singh
Singh’s banner career has not been without its fair share of controversy, but his track record on the golf course truly speaks for itself. His 34 career wins on the PGA Tour ranks 14th all-time and includes two PGA Championships and a victory at the 2000 Masters. Singh’s best season came in 2004 when he was named PGA Player of the Year, as well as European Tour Player of the Year. Singh also took home both the Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson Award in 2004. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006.
19. Ernie Els
There are few golfers to ever play the game with as sweet a stroke as “The Big Easy”. That same fluid swing has helped Els to 68 career wins worldwide, including 19 PGA Tour victories and four major championships. The native South African is a three-time European Player of the Year and was named the PGA Rookie of the Year in 1994. His vast accomplishments in the sport of golf were fully recognized in 2011 with his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Els latest honor came in 2015 as the recipient of the Payne Stewart Award.
18. Cary Middlecoff
Middlecoff made the unlikely transition from the world of dentistry into the world of professional golf at the age of 26. Although his career as a golfer was relatively short, his bizarre career move helped him become one of greatest golfers to ever play the game. “Doc”, as he was often referred, would go on to score 40 career PGA Tour victories, ranking him 10th on the all-time wins’ list. Three of those wins would serve as major championships, a 1955 victory at The Masters and wins at the 1949 and 1956 U.S. Open. His low scoring average in 1956 also helped him take home the prestigious Vardon Trophy. Additionally, Middlecoff won three titles as a member of the United States’ Ryder Cup team. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1986.
17. Billy Casper
Casper’s career may have been slightly overshadowed by fellow competitors Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player during the 1960’s, but he still managed to pave a successful path to the Hall of Fame with accomplishments rivaled by few in the history of the game. Casper twice earned PGA Player of the Year honors in 1966 and 1970. He had 69 professional wins, including 51 PGA Tour wins, which ranks 7th all-time and includes three major championships. Casper also garnered the illustrious Vardon Trophy five times between 1960 and 1968. He served on eight Ryder Cup teams, captaining the 1979 squad, and still holds the U.S. record for the most career Ryder Cup points won.
16. Nick Faldo
Sir Nick Faldo is one of the greatest players of his era and ranks near the top of all European players all time. The 1990 PGA Tour Player of the Year and 3-time European Golfer of the Year held a world No. 1 ranking for 97 weeks during his Hall of Fame career, including 81 consecutive weeks from 1992 until 1994. In total, he is credited with 41 professional wins. The most notable of which include his six major championships, winning three times each at The Masters and The British Open. The Hall of Fame golfer also helped the European team to five Ryder Cup victories. Faldo was most recently honored with the Payne Stewart Award in 2014.
15. Seve Ballesteros
The crafty Spaniard rarely took the easy route, but his ingenuity and ability to hole out even the toughest of golf shots help define him as one of the most prolific golfers to ever live. Ballesteros is credited with winning over 90 events during his illustrious career. The majority of those victories came on the European Tour, which Ballesteros dominated for the better part of two decades. That said, Ballesteros definitely left his mark as an international player as well, taking home three Claret Jugs for his victories at The British Open and scoring two wins at the Masters, for a grand total of five major championships. Ballesteros also helped the European Ryder Cup team to five wins during his Hall of Fame career. He is widely regarded as the greatest European golfer of all time.
14. Lee Trevino
The “Merry Mex” or “Super Mex”, as he is affectionately known, is widely hailed as the greatest Hispanic golfer of all time. Trevino is credited with 89 professional wins, including 29 on the PGA Tour. He is one of just four players in the history of golf to win twice each at the U.S. Open, PGA Championship and Open Championship, which make up his six career major championships. Trevino dominated the tour in 1971 when he was named PGA Player of the Year, Sports Illustrated Man of the Year and AP Male Athlete of the Year. Trevino also earned one of his five career Vardon Trophies in 1971 for the lowest scoring average on tour. The 76-year-old Hall of Fame golfer still competes sporadically as a member of The Champions Tour.
13. Harry Vardon
There is a reason why the award given to the golfer with the lowest scoring average each year is named in honor of Harry Vardon. He is truly one of the all-time greats, regardless of era. Vardon is credited with 49 professional victories and 21 team victories, and while his era pre-dates the PGA Tour and two of its current major championships, he still managed to dominate the sport during his time as the world’s most prolific golfer. He is a six-time winner of the Claret Jug. His six British Open victories still stand as a record today. Vardon also took home a U.S. Open title in 1900, giving him seven major titles in total. Vardon, along with fellow golfers of the era, James Braid and J.H. Taylor, helped form the legendary “Great Triumvirate”. The trio combined for a total of 16 British Open victories over a two-decade-span, bringing worldwide attention to the sport of golf in the process. Vardon was deservingly honored as one of the very first inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
12. Phil Mickelson
Few players in the history of golf understand the famous term “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” better than Phil Mickelson. He is undoubtedly one of most successful golfers to ever play the game, but his career has not been without its fair share of disappointment. Mickelson has finished as the runner-up in the U.S. Open a record six times. The U.S. Open is still to this day the only major that has eluded Mickelson during an otherwise stellar career, preventing him from winning all four of golf’s major championships and completing the Grand Slam. In total, Mickelson has five major titles to his credit, three Masters’ victories, a PGA Championship win and a British Open title. His 42 PGA wins rank 9th on the all-time list. Mickelson also has an astounding 26 Top 5 finishes and 37 Top 10 finishes in major championships. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012.
11. Gene Sarazen
Sarazen is probably best remembered for “the shot heard ’round the world” in the 1935 Masters. He pulled off the nearly impossible, erasing a three-shot deficit on the final day of the tournament by scoring a double eagle, using a 4-wood from 235 yards out, on the par-5 15th at Augusta. The miraculous shot ultimately helped him earn the victory, culminating in his first Masters win and enabling him to become one of just five players in the history of golf to complete the Grand Slam, winning each of golf’s four major tournament championships. In total, Sarazen would take home seven major titles during his Hall of Fame career. He would ultimately win 48 professional matches, including 39 on the PGA Tour. Sarazen also was named AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1932 and is credited as the inventor of the modern sand wedge.
10. Byron Nelson
Lord Byron’s most accomplished feat came in 1945 when he won a staggering 11 consecutive tournaments in a row and 18 tournaments total on the year (both are still current records). His legendary run in 1945 also culminated in one of his five career major championships, winning the 1945 PGA Championship, and his second consecutive AP Male Athlete of the Year Award. Nelson has 64 professional wins on his resume, including 52 PGA Tour victories, which places him 6th on the all-time wins list. He ranks second behind only Tiger Woods for consecutive cuts made with 113. Nelson also won countless awards for his vast contributions to the sport of golf and overall sportsmanship, including the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, the Payne Stewart Award in 2000 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006 to name a few. He was among the first players to be inducted into the inaugural class at the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
9. Tom Watson
Watson is one of the most accomplished golfers to ever pick up a golf club. He is a six-time PGA Player of the Year, a three-time Vardon Trophy winner and a well deserving member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. From 1978 until 1982, Watson was ranked as the No. 1 golfer in the world according to McCormick’s World Golf Rankings. Watson’s 39 PGA Tour victories rank 11th on the all-time list, and his 8 major championships include two Masters’ wins, a U.S. Open victory and an amazing five British Open titles. The only major missing from his illustrious resume is a PGA Championship, although he did finish runner-up in 1978. He also captained the United States’ Ryder Cup squad to victory in 1993. At age 66, Watson still competes via a limited schedule on The Champions Tour, where he has accumulated 14 career wins and six senior major championships.
8. Gary Player
Player is unquestionably the greatest international golfer to ever play the game. A career that spanned five decades, and over 15 million miles of travel (more than the space shuttle), helped vault the South African golf legend to 165 professional wins worldwide, 24 by way of the PGA Tour, and nine major championships. He is one of just five members of golf’s prestigious career Grand Slam club, winning all four major titles. Player is one of just four golfers to have won The Masters and British Open three times each. He also was among the inaugural class of the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, and the winner of countless well deserved awards and honors over the years. Now age 80, “The Black Knight” still serves as an ambassador for golf worldwide, as well as being a strong advocate for physical fitness. Player still makes appearances on The Champions Tour, where he has accumulated six senior major championships.
7. Walter Hagen
Flamboyant, extravagant, dapper and beyond confident are just a few words that best describe Hagen during his formidable years as one of the greatest golfers ever. He was a true showman, and it served him, and the future of golf well. Hagen’s over-the-top antics and outstanding play enabled him to (unofficially) become the first millionaire sport’s figure in history. He also helped open the door for the game of golf to become a financially viable, and in most cases, lucrative occupation for those who followed. His rivalries with the great Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen reached legendary proportions, and his overall contributions to the game of golf are plentiful and often underappreciated.
Hagen won 75 professional tournaments during his iconic career, 45 of those via the PGA Tour, making him the 8th winningest golfer in PGA history. His 11 major championships place him behind only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on the all-time list. He also won five Western Opens, which was widely considered to be a major in its own right during the era. He was among the first-ever class inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
6. Arnold Palmer
If these rankings were driven by popularity, or for the most beloved and important golfer of all time, there is a very good chance that Palmer would rank right at the top of this list. After all, there is a reason that he is known as “The King”, has his very own Army and has a drink named in his honor. Palmer helped popularize golf, as its most iconic figure, during a time when television first began to bring the sport to the masses in the 1950s and '60s. Along with fellow super stars and rivals of the era, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, Palmer was a trailblazer that helped vault golf to the forefront of the sporting world.
Palmer would go on to 95 professional wins during his Hall of Fame career, including 62 PGA Tour victories (5th all-time) and seven major championships. He is a four-time Masters’ Champion, two-time British Open winner and won The U.S. Open in 1960. Palmer fell just short of the coveted “Grand Slam”, finishing 2nd in the PGA Championship on three separate occasions. He was a two-time PGA Player of the Year, four-time Vardon Trophy winner and named Sports Illustrated Man of the Year in 1960. The legendary golfer has gone on to win countless honors and awards over the years, including the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009.
5. Ben Hogan
Hogan was a legendary ball striker and a true student of the game, whose life was plagued by almost as much tragedy as success. “The Hawk”, as he became known, would go on to score 64 PGA victories, ranking him 4th on the all-time PGA wins’ list. He was equally successful in majors, compiling nine major championships. He is one of just five players to earn the prestigious Grand Slam of golf. Hogan is also the only player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year (1953). He may very well have completed the sweep if not for missing the ’53 PGA Championship because the dates of the tournament overlapped with the start of The British Open in that particular year. He was a four-time PGA Player of the Year, three-time Vardon Trophy winner, AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1953 and a part of the first class inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. Hogan parlayed his legendary career on the golf course into pioneering one of the most successful golf equipment companies in the world.
4. Sam Snead
“Slammin’ Sammy” had one of the sweetest and most proficient swings the game of golf has ever known. It helped propel his game to legendary levels for the better part of 50 years, culminating in his status as the winningest golfer in PGA history with 82 PGA Tour career victories. In total, Snead has 165 professional victories to his credit. He fared extremely well in golf’s major tournaments as well, scoring seven major titles during the height of his career in the 1940s and ‘50s. The only major that eluded the iconic golfer was the U.S. Open, in which he would finish 2nd four times. He is a four-time Vardon Trophy winner and remains the oldest golfer in history to win a tournament, make a cut and shoot his age (67 at the time). The Hall of Famer also posted Top 10 finishes in majors in five different decades. A true icon of the sport, and unquestionably in the argument for the best to ever play the game.
3. Bobby Jones
A true golf prodigy, Jones is the greatest amateur golfer to ever live. A strong case can also be made that he is the greatest golfer to ever play the game, period. Jones was not only a hero of golf during the height of his career, but also one of the biggest sports icons of his day, rivaling the great Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. He also trumped, and often beat, fellow golf legends of the era, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. He accomplished more, in a shorter period of time, than any other sports’ figure in history. In just a seven year period, between 1923 and 1930, Jones would compete in 31 major tournaments, claiming 13 major championship titles (seven professional and six amateur) and cracking the Top 10 an astounding 27 times. He is the only golfer credited with a single-season Grand Slam (1930), albeit this feat came prior to the existence of The Masters, which ironically was co-founded by Jones himself. The legendary golfer would retire from the sport at the ripe age of just 28 years old, having accomplished all of his goals, but leaving everyone to forever ponder just how much more he could have accomplished. Jones was among the first class to be inducted into the World Golf hall of Fame in 1974.
2. Jack Nicklaus
“The Golden Bear” is arguably the most accomplished golfer in the history of the game. In fact, there are many that feel that Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all time, and with good reason. Nicklaus has won more major championships than any other golfer to ever live. A record 18, a number that will likely never be surpassed by anyone. Included in his major titles are five PGA Championships, four U.S. Open titles, three British Open Championships and a record six wins at The Masters. He is one of just two players in golf history, along with Tiger Woods, to win all of golf’s major tournaments at least three times. He also holds the record for Top 5 finishes in majors with 56 and Top 10’s with 73. Nicklaus is the third winningest golfer in PGA history as well, compiling 73 career wins. He was a five-time PGA Player of the Year, an eight-time Vardon Trophy winner for lowest scoring average on tour and won at least two PGA Tour events in 17 consecutive seasons. Nicklaus has garnered numerous awards and accolades over the years for his amazing contributions to the sport of golf and society in general. He was enshrined into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 as part of its inaugural class.
1. Tiger Woods
While a reasonable case can be made for players such as Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and maybe even Sam Snead to sit atop this list, it is hard to argue that anyone in the history of golf played the game as well as Tiger Woods when he was at his best. And that is exactly why he ranks as the greatest golfer to ever live. Not only did he dominate the sport of golf more thoroughly than anyone before him, Woods single-handedly popularized golf in a way that it had never been done before, transcending the sports’ world into popular culture. And he did so at a time when golf probably needed it the most.
Following an impressive amateur career and two years of collegiate golf at Stanford, Woods took the world of professional golf by storm, earning PGA Rookie of the Year honors in 1996. He has gone on to accumulate 79 PGA Tour wins, trailing Sam Snead by just 3 on the all-time wins list. His 14 major championships rank second behind only Jack Nicklaus who has 18. Woods is also one of just two players, along with Nicklaus, to win each of golf’s majors at least three times, completing the triple Grand Slam. He is the only player in golf history to win four consecutive majors in a row (2000-2001). Additionally, he has the lowest scoring average in PGA Tour history by a fairly wide margin. Maybe his most distinguished accomplishment is winning a mind-blowing 25.2 percent of the tournaments in which he has entered. Other notable records include being named PGA Player of the Year 11 times, winning the Vardon Trophy on nine separate occasions and making the most consecutive cuts (142) in golf history.
In recent years, Woods career has been marred by both injury and scandal. While it appears unlikely that he will ever return to the form of his glory days, he is still relatively young, and the possibility exists that there is still time for him to add to an already unbelievable list of accomplishments. Woods will not be eligible for the World Golf Hall of Fame until he reaches the age of 50, but he is an obvious lock to do so.