Athlon Counts down the best in the game's history
He hadn't struck a meaningful shot in many years — aside from the ceremonial tee shots that launched each Masters — but Arnold Palmer remained the world's most important golfer until his death last September, and his legacy will live on as long as there's televised golf. In fact, were it not for Palmer, you wouldn't be reading this list, and golf would still be struggling to gain a foothold on the American sports landscape.
The King has his rightful place high on this list, and most of the others who join him here owe him a debt of gratitude for the mammoth purses and endorsement opportunities that followed in his wake. Our No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, had this to say via Twitter: "It's hard to imagine golf without you or anyone more important to the game than the King."
As for this ranking, it's hard if not impossible to compare players across different eras in any sport. In golf, it's doubly so, given the game's equipment advances and changing conditions of golf courses over the years.
In compiling this ranking, I used two primary criteria: achievement and impact. Who won important golf tournaments, and who transcended the game while doing so? You'll notice that many of today's superstars — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson — are missing, but as their achievements accumulate, they'll no doubt force their way into future rankings. Stay tuned.
In fact, one current superstar finds himself a new addition to the top 20. With 22 wins as a professional, including four majors, Rory McIlroy has become impossible to ignore when listing the game's all-time greats.
Here, then, are the 20 men who have had the greatest careers and most lasting impact on the game of golf. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong.
20. Greg Norman
The star-crossed Norman is better remembered for his spectacular failures than his successes, but we can't overlook his 20 career PGA Tour wins and his 331 weeks spent as the world's No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings. A little better luck and a little more clutch play and he would have seven or eight major wins instead of two (1986 and 1993 British Opens).
19. Rory McIlroy
McIlroy is a four-time major champion and is only a Green Jacket away from holding a career Grand Slam. Yet there is a nagging suspicion that the best may still be yet to come for the Northern Irishman, who has yet to return to the giddy heights he scaled in 2014, when he won two majors. He's undoubtedly the player on this list with the most upward mobility.
18. Vijay Singh
His career might be tainted on the front end by cheating allegations and on the back end by association with performance-enhancing drugs, but it's hard to deny Vijay a spot in the golf pantheon. He's won 34 times on the PGA Tour, including two PGA Championships and a Masters win.
17. Billy Casper
The Big Three — Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player — dominated the golf headlines in the 1960s, but the unassuming Casper was as good as anybody in his era. Casper won 51 PGA Tour events, seventh all time, and earned three majors, including the 1966 U.S. Open, where he denied Palmer a coveted win.
16. Ernie Els
With four majors — two U.S. Opens and two British Opens — the Big Easy is a legitimate challenger for the title of second-best player of the Tiger Woods era. His smooth, easy swing is the envy of hackers from here to Johannesburg and has led him to 19 PGA Tour victories.
15. Walter Hagen
The flamboyant Hagen was the first ultra-successful touring pro and raised the stature of the lowly pro golfer substantially in an era when amateurs like Bobby Jones ruled the sport. Hagen won 11 professional majors — two U.S. Opens, four British Opens and five PGAs — to set a record that would stand until the 1960s, and he also won five Western Opens during a time when that tournament was essentially a major.
14. Nick Faldo
Sir Nick dominated world golf for a time at the expense of chief rival Greg Norman, whom he drubbed in a memorable British Open showdown in 1990 and beat in the 1996 Masters following Norman's epic collapse. Faldo won six majors — three Masters and three British Opens — and earned 30 wins on the European Tour while providing a steadying influence on five Ryder Cup-winning teams.
13. Lee Trevino
The Merry Mex got a lot out of an unorthodox, self-taught game, winning 29 PGA Tour events and six majors. Four times, Trevino denied Nicklaus at a major championship, adding to his legend as one of the few players who could stare down the Golden Bear. Trevino also brought an unprecedented level of working-man appeal and humor to the Tour, although, as he said, "I played the tour in 1967 and told jokes and nobody laughed. Then I won the Open the next year, told the same jokes, and everybody laughed like hell."
12. Byron Nelson
For a few months in 1945, Byron Nelson played better than anyone ever has. That year, Lord Byron won 11 tournaments in a row, including the PGA Championship. When you consider that Payne Stewart won 11 tournaments in his career and is considered one of the all-time greats, you get a sense of the magnitude of that accomplishment. More than one-fifth of Nelson’s 52 career wins came courtesy of the Streak. And lest we dismiss the accomplishment on the basis of inferior competition, remember that Sam Snead was nearing his prime and a young Ben Hogan was making a name for himself. For one incredible spring and summer, Lord Byron invented and patented The Zone. For the year, Nelson won a staggering 18 events and was named AP Athlete of the Year. For his career, he was the game's greatest gentleman.
11. Seve Ballesteros
Maybe we loved him because we could identify with him. We were often hitting out of the woods, from bunkers, from parking lots, just like he was. The difference? Seve Ballesteros would often make a birdie from the woods, or the bunker, or the parking lot, and he’d do it with a style and grace that was impossible not to admire and envy. Almost two decades before Tiger Woods, Ballesteros exploded onto the scene as a precocious 19-year-old, finishing tied for second with the great Jack Nicklaus at the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale. Having fashioned his game by hitting rocks on the beaches of Pedrena, Spain, with a homemade 3-iron, Ballesteros was ready to attack any lie, any condition, any circumstance, making him ideally suited for the demanding conditions at Britain’s links courses.
His three British Open titles were triumphs of courage and ingenuity. His 1979 Open title at Royal Lytham and St. Annes was punctuated by a birdie for the ages from the parking lot. His 1984 title at the Old Course at St. Andrews denied Tom Watson his third consecutive Open and fourth in five years. His 1988 title was, in retrospect, the climax of his playing career and featured one of the great final rounds in golf history. His 65 that day included an 11-hole stretch in which Ballesteros made two pars, two bogeys, six birdies and an eagle. It took a chip shot on the final hole that nudged the flagstick to turn back Nick Price. In all, Ballesteros won five majors, adding two Masters titles to his three British Opens, while collecting 65 titles worldwide. His magical short game led him to six European Tour Vardon trophies for low scoring average.
But in assessing Ballesteros’ career, we can’t overlook his larger impact on golf. Seve was more than a great player. He was Europe’s version of Arnold Palmer, putting a sport on his back and selling it to an entire continent. Almost singlehandedly, Seve made the Ryder Cup an event, transforming a low-key, American-dominated series of exhibitions into one of the greatest spectacles in sports. In fact, Seve’s finest hour may have come not with a golf club in hand, but a walkie-talkie. Because of his legacy and influence, the Ryder Cup was held for the first time on mainland Europe in 1997, at Spain’s Valderrama Golf Club. As non-playing captain, Seve was the fire that ignited the European team against a heavily favored American team. Ballesteros, one of the greatest match-play golfers in history, willed his team to an historic win without firing a shot.
The Ballesteros File
• Winner of five major championships (2 Masters, 3 British Opens)
• Winner of 50 European Tour events, six European Tour Vardon Trophies for low scoring average
• Earned 20 Ryder Cup points in 37 career matches
10. Phil Mickelson
Tagged from the beginning as the Next Nicklaus, Mickelson has always lived with massive expectations, some of them self-imposed, and Phil's failures are almost as celebrated as his many successes. But there have been plenty of successes — 42 PGA Tour wins (ninth all time) and five majors, including three Masters. He's also recorded a record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, but that only adds to his everyman appeal. His jaw-dropping 66 in the final round of the 2013 British Open on baked, windswept Muirfield joins the ranks of the greatest rounds in major championship history and vaulted Phil the Thrill into our top 10. As long as he continues to play the U.S. Open, hope remains alive for a career Grand Slam, which would be a remarkable achievement for a guy who suffered through countless crushing disappointments just to win his first major.
The Mickelson File
• Winner of five major championships (3 Masters, 1 British Open, 1 PGA Championship)
• One of only 8 players with as many as three Masters wins
• One of only 15 men to hold at least three legs of the career Grand Slam
• Runner-up at the U.S. Open a record six times
• 20 top-3 finishes, 35 top-10 finishes at major championships
• Winner of 42 PGA Tour events, 9th all time
• Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012
• Remains last amateur to win on the PGA Tour (1991 Northern Telecom Open)
No. 9: Gene Sarazen
It’s a shame, really, that Gene Sarazen is remembered primarily for a single shot, when he meant so much more than that to the game. But what a shot it was. It was his first Masters, 1935. He trailed Craig Wood by three shots on the final day when he came to Augusta’s No. 15, a par-5 that is reachable in two shots. His tee shot left him some 220 yards from the flag. The story goes that as he stood in the 15th fairway, he turned to his caddie, Stovepipe, and said, “Should I play it safe?” “Noooo. Go for it,” was Stovepipe’s response. Knowing he needed to get the ball in the air to carry the small creek guarding the front of the green, Sarazen pulled out his 4-wood and promptly made history, holing his shot for a double eagle that put him in a playoff with Wood, which he won. And Bobby Jones’ little gathering in Augusta was never the same.
Sarazen won his first professional title at the age of 19 and never looked back, winning 37 more times in a career that spanned more than four decades. He became the first member of golf’s modern Career Grand Slam club with his Masters win, which he added to his two U.S. Open titles (1922, 1932), his three PGA Championships (1922, 1923 and 1933) and his 1932 British Open win. After 66 years, only four other players — Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — have joined that elite group. He even impacted the way the game is played. Sarazen is widely credited with the invention of the sand wedge in the early 1930s.
The Sarazen File
• Winner of seven major titles and a career Grand Slam
• Owner of 38 career PGA titles
• Inventor of the sand wedge
• AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1932
• Won his second U.S. Open (1932) by playing the last 28 holes in an incredible 100 strokes in one of the great performances in golf history
• Struck the Shot Heard Round the World, his 4-wood that nestled in the hole for a double eagle at Augusta National’s No. 15
8. Gary Player
Before Seve Ballesteros, before Greg Norman, before Ernie Els, there was Gary Player, golf’s first great international ambassador. Before the diminutive South African packed his wife and kids and a few suitcases and set out on his five-decade international odyssey, golf was primarily dominated by British and American players. Then along came the little man in black. Over a career than began in the mid-1950s, Player has logged more air miles than the Space Shuttle, and he has saved many of his greatest achievements for his trips to the States.
Using an unprecedented commitment to physical fitness (for golf, anyway) and an unmatched work ethic, Player has fashioned a remarkable career that has seen him win well over 150 tournaments worldwide, including nine major championships. He is one of only five players to own all four of golf’s modern majors, and one of only four players — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo are the others — to have won the Masters and the British Open three times apiece.
Augusta was the scene of his greatest win. It was 1978, and Player hadn’t won a major championship in four years. His career seemed to be in decline, and he found himself seven shots out of the lead heading into the final round of the Masters. The 42-year-old Player proceeded to catch fire. Playing well ahead of the leaders, Player blistered Augusta National with a final-round 64, then waited as the leaders faltered down the stretch, giving him his third green jacket. His 64 remains the greatest final-round Masters performance in history, matched in drama only by Nicklaus’ sixth Masters title eight years later.
The Player File
• One of five players — Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods are the others — to own a career Grand Slam.
• One of four players — Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo are the others — to have won the Masters and British Open three times each.
• Recorded wins on the PGA or Senior Tours in a record five decades — the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
7. Tom Watson
Watson won eight majors and dominated golf’s oldest tournament, the British Open, like no one else, winning five times in a nine-year span and coming close to a historic sixth win in 2009 at age 59. Like Trevino, he won four memorable duels with Jack Nicklaus in major championships, including the 1977 British Open, the greatest head-to-head duel in golf history. Watson and Nicklaus so distanced themselves from the rest of the field on that baked, windswept surface that Hubert Green, who finished third, remarked, “I won the tournament I was playing. I don’t know what tournament they were playing.” For the weekend, Nicklaus shot 65-66 — and lost. Watson’s 65-65 gave him his second British Open title.
In 2009, Watson was the beloved elder statesman at the British Open at Turnberry, the sentimental choice of an emotional and appreciative crowd that very nearly willed him to the most improbable win in the history of golf’s most storied tournament. But instead of Nicklaus accompanying him down the 18th fairway, he had four days of fatigue, crushing pressure and the hopes of a watching world weighing him down. Standing over the eight-foot par putt that would have provided an improbable capper to his Hall of Fame career, his 59-year-old nerves finally betrayed him. “It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it? It would have been a hell of a story,” he said. “It wasn’t to be. And yes, it’s a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It’s not easy to take."
But Watson's triumphs far outnumber his disappointments. His Augusta exploits are overshadowed by his dominance at the British Open, but between 1975 and 1988, no one was better at The Masters — two wins, three runner-ups and 12 top-10 finishes. He outdueled Nicklaus at the 1982 U.S. Open on the strength of one of the greatest shots in golf history — his chip-in on the 71st hole that led to a two-shot win, perhaps the most satisfying of his 39 career wins.
The Watson file
• 39 career PGA Tour wins, including eight major championships
• 5 British Open wins, trailing only Harry Vardon
• 6-time PGA Tour Player of the Year
• Made at least one cut per year from 1971–2007, a streak of 37 years.
6. Bobby Jones
In the Golden Age of sports, nobody shone brighter than Bobby Jones. Not Babe Ruth, not Red Grange, not Jack Dempsey. From 1923-30, a nation that was truly embracing sports on an epic scale watched in awe as Jones won everything in sight. Then, having no more worlds to conquer, he walked away from competitive golf, at age 28. No sports legend accomplished more in a shorter period of time, and no sports legend walked away at such a young age.
A golf prodigy at age 14, Jones really didn’t find his game until the ripe old age of 20, when he began his remarkable run. He took the 1923 U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff, then ripped off another 12 majors before calling it a career. His record of 13 major championships would stand for 40 years, before a youngster named Nicklaus came along.
Obviously, Jones’ crowning achievement came in 1930 with his unprecedented and so far unduplicated Grand Slam. That year, Jones, bore the incredible weight of expectations. Fans and media fully expected him to sweep the majors, which at the time included the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs. His run to the Slam almost ended before it began, as Jones sweated out three one-up matches in the British Amateur. He won the British Open by two strokes, then took the U.S. Open by a similarly slim margin.
Only one leg was left, and it was the easiest. Jones waltzed to the U.S. Amateur Championship amid a contingent of Marine bodyguards, and the Slam was his. Less than two months later, Jones retired from competitive golf, his legend secure.
But his contributions to the game didn’t end. A few years later, he organized a gathering of friends that came to be known as the Masters. Jones was a fixture at Augusta each spring, but his golf was confined to the friendly kind. The Georgia Tech and Harvard graduate instead practiced law in Atlanta.
His later years were unkind. He suffered from syringomyelia, a painful and crippling disease that confined him to a wheelchair and finally ended his life on Dec. 18, 1971. The legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind eulogized him this way: “As a young man, he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst.”
The Jones file
• Winner of the 1930 Grand Slam — the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateurs
• Played in 31 majors, won 13 and finished in the top 10 27 times
• Founder of Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters
5. Ben Hogan
Brooding, temperamental, focused — Ben Hogan was not a charismatic figure who rallied the masses to follow the game a la Arnold Palmer. Instead, he was all about golf shots. The Hawk remains the greatest shotmaker golf has ever produced. Rather than relying on today’s technologically advanced equipment, Hogan used an uncanny ability to control the flight of his ball to win nine majors — and a greater percentage of majors entered than even Jack Nicklaus. To Hogan, “the Hawk,” “Bantam Ben,” who was 5’7”, 140 pounds when he was at the peak of his game, striking a ball well was more important than scoring.
Hogan’s life was one struggle after another. The early years, when Hogan couldn’t control the hook. The later years, when he battled back from a terrible 1949 auto crash that nearly killed him. But he never gave in or gave out until suffering a major stroke after his mind and his body had been ravaged by Alzheimer’s and colon cancer.
Others played a golf course; Hogan studied it. He didn’t write down yardages. He interpreted them. “I have to feel a shot,” he said. He squinted from under that familiar white hat, surveyed the land, reached into a bag held by a caddy usually afraid to utter a word and then made that flat, repetitive swing.
He is one of five players to win all of the Grand Slam events. In 1953, he became the first to win as many as three majors in one year, the Masters and both Opens. He didn’t enter the PGA that year, fearing his legs weren’t up to the challenge. The ’53 British Open at Carnoustie, the only British Open he entered, would be his last major.
Hogan’s last tournament was the 1971 Houston Champions International. Playing poorly, bothered by a sprained knee, 58-year-old Ben Hogan walked off the course during the first round and never played again. “I liked to win,” Hogan said, “but more than anything I loved to play the way I wanted to play.”
The Hogan File
• Winner of 64 PGA Tour events, including 9 majors
• One of five players to possess a modern career Grand Slam
• Only player to win Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in same year
• Also a towering figure in equipment manufacturing and golf instruction
4. Arnold Palmer
There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than the King, Arnold Palmer. He quadrupled purses, brought golf away from the country clubs and into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
From 1958 to 1968, Palmer reigned amid the azaleas and pines of Augusta National, where Arnie’s Army first mustered. With the lone exception of 1963, he was in contention at every Masters during that epic stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once and fourth twice.
Although he made his reputation at The Masters — and made the tournament what it is today — it was the 1960 U.S. Open that truly captured the King at the peak of his powers. The leaderboard on that final day included a chubby 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus. It included a legend — the Hawk, Ben Hogan. The third member of this historic trio lit a cigarette, stalked to the tee of the 318-yard, par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills and drove the green on his way to a historic final-round 65, erasing a seven-stroke deficit for the greatest comeback in Open history.
The Palmer File
• 60 PGA Tour wins
• 7 Major Championships
• 4-time PGA Tour money champ
• 1st PGA Tour millionaire
• 15 consecutive years with at least one victory
3. Sam Snead
If winning is the standard for determining excellence, there is no greater player in golf history than Sam Snead. Using a smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing, Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player — a staggering total of 81 PGA Tour titles, and anywhere from 135 to 165 victories worldwide, depending on whom you ask. He posted wins in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in that event), when he was 52 years old.
Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff triumph over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA Championships and a British Open.
There is one hole in the Slammer’s résumé that prevents him from staking a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in history. Somehow, Snead never won the one tournament that seemingly should have been his by birthright. He never won a U.S. Open. But his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish his accomplishments.
His swing was such an efficient device that it served him well into his golden years and remains the gold standard for golf swings. In 1979, he offered golf fans one final glimpse of his greatness, as he became the first player to score below his age, shooting 67 and 66 in the Quad Cities Open at the age of 67. By then, and for the rest of his life, Snead was a beloved ambassador and advocate for the game.
The Snead File
• A record 82 PGA Tour wins, spanning 1936 to 1965
• Seven major championships, including three Masters and three PGA Championships
• Oldest player to win, make a cut and shoot his age in PGA Tour history
• Posted top 10s in majors in five different decades
2. Jack Nicklaus
Nicklaus brought out greatness in his opponents — Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game through his physical skill and strength, his mental toughness, his sustained level of excellence and his genius for strategically dismantling golf courses around the world.
You know the litany of accomplishments. 18 major championships, more than Hogan and Palmer combined. A mind-boggling 37 top twos in majors.
And lest we think the Tour of the 21st Century outshines the Tour in Jack’s prime, consider this: Nicklaus fought many of the game’s greatest at their very peak and beat them all. And when he didn’t beat them, he coaxed their very best out of them.
As if to prove the point, at age 46, Nicklaus was able to muster enough of his old-time wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, Norman — all of them at the peak of their powers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986 in one of the greatest sports moments of all time.
In his golden years, the Golden Bear has continued to shape the game with his prolific golf course design company.
The Nicklaus File
• Winner of 73 PGA Tour events, including a record 18 major championships
• Winner of a record six Masters
• Finished in top 5 in majors a record 56 times, in the top 10 a record 73 times
• Posted lowest scoring average on Tour eight times
• Won PGA Tour money title eight times
• Won at least two PGA Tour events in 17 consecutive seasons (1962-78)
1. Tiger Woods
In April 1997, Woods began a trajectory that led him directly to the top of this list. He so dominated the most storied and tradition-steeped tournament in golf that the sport was changed forever. We all remember the Masters-record 18-under par total that Woods shot in his first Masters as a pro. We remember his incredible 12-shot margin of victory. (Runner-up Tom Kite’s 282 total would have been good enough to win 17 previous Masters, but it only got him within 12 shots of Tiger.) We remember the way his mammoth drives turned the par-5s into pitch-and-putts. What many people don’t remember about the 1997 Masters is how badly Tiger started the tournament. On the front nine on Thursday, Woods went out in 40, leaving him 4-over par. That, apparently, is when the stars aligned and the golf gods smiled. Over the next 63 holes, Woods swept through Augusta National like a tornado, toying with the course and demoralizing the greatest players in the world.
Tiger’s runaway, far from putting a crimp into the television ratings, instead gave golf its greatest ratings winner to date. In 1996, before Woods turned pro, the ratings were 9.2 on Sunday. In 1997, when Woods won, the number jumped to 14.1.
The rest, as they say, is history — 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour wins, the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history, 10 Player of the Year awards, and, yes, scandal and disgrace. But the impact and the level of achievement are undeniable and unprecedented. Quite simply, at his best, Woods has played the game better than it's ever been played.
The Woods File
• 79 PGA Tour wins, second all-time to Sam Snead
• 14 major championships, second all-time to Jack Nicklaus
• Only player ever to win four consecutive majors
• Lowest scoring average in PGA Tour history
• Scoring average of 67.79 in 2000 the lowest single-season average in Tour history
• PGA Tour Player of the Year a record 10 times