My 15 Greatest Golfers Ever

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15. Byron Nelson

 It’s difficult to leave any player who won 11 tour events in a row out of any such list. I’m sure many who saw him play would place him higher in this list. Two things keep in down in my list, one being that his most successful years came during World War 2, when the tour was weakened by having some players on military duty. The other being that by bringing his career to an end once that he had won enough to buy himself the ranch he always wanted, we never found out just how many more majors he could have added to the four that he did win. By all accounts a great gentleman of the game, and I for one am not going to blame him for retreating to his ranch.

 

14. Gene Sarazen.

I’m sure the ‘The Little Squire’, will be higher in many people’s list, and I’d struggle to argue with that. He’s one of only five players to have won all four of the modern day professional major tournaments. Clearly a versatile player, and like everyone on this list I have no hesitation in using the word ‘great’ to describe him. Seven major wins in any era is outstanding.

 

13. Harry Vardon

Some might say I’m going too far back in the history books to be able to make fair comparisons. But six Open Championships is a record that no one has matched to date. In an era when there was only two majors a year available to him, his total of seven is most impressive. This is especially so when you take in the fact that he only played in three US Opens, winning one and finishing tied for 2nd in the other two. His first and last Open Championship wins being 18years apart vouch for his longevity, anybody who ever saw him play can vouch for his immense control of his long game, probably only Ben Hogan has been spoken of since in such glowing terms about machine like accuracy and consistency. The fact that he stayed at the top of his game for so long, despite putting so poorly, backs up those references.

 

12. Sam Snead

If Golf was a beauty contest, Sam Snead would probably have been Miss World. If this list was based purely on style, longevity and natural talent for striking a golf ball then Snead would probably have been at the top. Credited with the saying ‘you drive for show and you putt for dough’, when asked why he didn’t win even more tournaments with his graceful, athletic swing. A US Open win to go with the seven other majors would probably have seen him much higher on the list.

 

11. Arnold Palmer

I know I’m going to anger some of the ‘King’s’ army by leaving him so low down. If it was a list of the most influential golfers then he would be at the top. Every professional that played at the same time as Palmer and all those that have played since, should say a little thank you to him for making their cheques quite so big. He was most definitely about more than style over substance though, seven major wins and several chances to win others. Maybe unfortunate that his career overlapped with Nicklaus’, but being the competitor he was I’m sure Arnie wouldn’t have wanted an easy ride to more majors.

 

10. Seve Ballesteros

Often referred to as the ‘European Palmer’, because of his great charisma and the way he appealed to the masses. Again this can distract you from the sheer impressiveness of his career. Five major wins probably wasn’t a fair reflection of his overload of talent, his domination of the European tour was what helped establish it as a genuine rival to the US Tour. Along with captain Tony Jacklin, Seve did more than any other player to make the Ryder Cup what it is today.

 

9. Nick Faldo

Only a tiny amount of people would’ve had the sheer bloody mindedness to reach virtually the very top of the game and then start all over again, because they felt their swing wasn’t quite good enough. A couple of years in the wilderness followed, before a career defining win at the Open Championship, famously parring all eighteen holes on the last day to overall Paul Azinger by one. The subsequent reputation for being a ‘plodder’ is misguided and harsh, especially when you see that his three Masters wins were all come from behind victories where his final round scores were 65, 67 and 67. Some people will tell you that Faldo is overrated because five of his six majors ‘should’ have been won by someone else. They are completely missing the point, major championships are all about keeping your nerve and holding you game together just when you need it most. Any time from the late 1980s through most of the 1990s if someone had the lead in a major the last person they would have wanted anywhere near their lead would’ve been Faldo.

 

8. Tom Watson

If his second shot at the 72nd hole at Troon in 2009 had stopped as quick as it surely should’ve done, then Vardon would have company in the six time Open Championship winners club, and Francis Ouimet would’ve had some serious competition for the greatest golf story ever told. A bad weather specialist with exceptional scrambling ability was always going to do well in the Open. One of a number of top players whose putting deserted him right about the time he gained a fuller control over his long game. Anybody who got the better of Nicklaus in a head to head duel for a major championship on more than one occasion deserves the utmost respect.

 

7. Lee Trevino

Some maybe surprised Lee is quite so high in my list, but my reasoning is that when Nicklaus is asked for his toughest opponent, he will say Trevino. Most Brits think of Trevino ‘stealing’ the 1972 Open Championship from Tony Jacklin, with some outrageous chip ins. This is another case of a false reputation being formed, extremely few people in the history of the game have had better control of the golf ball than Trevino, he was a billion light years away from being a lucky scrambler. Two Open wins on both sides of the Atlantic, along with two wins in the PGA championship make up his six majors. A genuinely great character on the course, but it would be a crime if that was all he was remembered for.

 

6. Walter Hagen

A strong case could be made for Hagen being the best match player of all time. It’s probably the case that no player in the history of the game remained as unflustered by a bad shot. Around 80years before Dr Bob Rotella wrote his famous book, Walter Hagen had worked out that ‘Golf is not a game of perfect’. Eleven professional major championships, leaving him behind only Woods and Nicklaus on that list, means that he could easily be higher on this list. Playing at a time of a lack in the strength in depth of the competition is the only reason I’ve not put him higher. He’s also credited with one of the best pieces of golf advice ever, ‘make sure you stop and smell the flowers.’

 

5. Gary Player

Often overlooked when it comes to talking about the greatest golfers of all time, maybe because he played in the same era as Nicklaus and only won half as many majors. Nine major championships though, during a career that ran parallel with Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Trevino, is an incredible achievement that should never be overlooked. If there was a list for the player who made the most out of what he was born with, then Player would be above everyone, with the possible exception of Hogan. Like he said the more he practiced the ‘luckier’ he got.

 

4. Tiger Woods

Still has the potential to move all the way to the top of this list, if he can recapture his best form. The less said about the man off the course the better, but purely as a golfer who have to admire him. Some say he’s not had the great players to compete against, the likes of which Nicklaus did, but in the modern game the overall strength in depth of the field has been Tiger’s great rival. Now there are many more players in every major who have a genuinely good chance of winning, than ever before. Majors used to be about staying in contention for as long as possible and playing well in the clutch, something Nicklaus and, more recently, Faldo, were two of the great exponents of. Woods has won all 14 of his majors from in front, often leaving the field in no doubt that he was the best player that week. He doesn’t want to merely win, he wants to dominate. Maybe to pass Nicklaus he will have to grind out some ‘ugly’ come from behind wins.

 

3. Bobby Jones

It might seem odd that somebody with ‘only’ 7 major wins makes it into the top three, but those seven don’t come near telling the full story of Bobby Jones. Firstly he was an amateur all his life, so only had two professional majors to go at each year, and secondly he retired at the age of thirty to be a lawyer. His six amateur majors also have to be taken into account as he played at a time when the gap between amateur and professional was far smaller than it is today. If all these fifteen players had retired when they were 30, a lot of them would’ve got nowhere near this list. The ease and style with which he played made golf look a lot easier than it has been for millions of people since. His lasting legacy is the US Masters Tournament, but even without that his place in golfing history would be more than assured.

 

2. Ben Hogan

If you like your heroes to overcome adversity then Hogan is the golf legend for you. Nobody has ever practiced harder at his game, and nobody has come closer to mastering the long game. If he could’ve married his putting of the first part of his career, with the long game of the second part, then his scoring records would, in all likelihood, all still be standing today. Far from being an overnight success, Hogan ‘failed’ to make it big for years, by way of complete contrast to Jones he didn’t come near to his best until reaching his thirties. Just when he looked to be making his mark on the top of the game, his career was interrupted by WW2 duties. It wasn’t until 1946, when he was 34years old, that he won his first major championship, after that he set about establishing himself as the premier player in the game. He had one more setback to overcome, a near fatal car crash, when by covering his wife in the passenger seat he protected her and made his injuries worse. Doctors feared for his life, then that he would never walk again. Hogan went on to win six more majors. Between 1948 and 1953, he won eight of the eleven majors he contested, his lowest finish in those events being 7th. That run makes a strong case for Hogan playing the best golf of all time.

 

  1. Jack Nicklaus.

To be in front of those fourteen players, you don’t have to be good, you have to be great. One of the most overused words in sport, there are few if any other sportsmen who deserve the word great any more than Jack Nicklaus. Every player in this list was better at some part of the game than Nicklaus was, but nobody has ever put whole package together better and more often than Nicklaus. Few sports stars could claim to have a better ability to peak for the big occasion than Jack did. Eighteen major championship wins, stretched over twenty four years, some stats don’t lie. Time and again he’d get himself into contention, even when he wasn’t playing his best. He provided one of the greatest pieces of drama the sport has ever known, when in 1986 at the age of 46, he proved that the great one had it in him one more time. On the brink of contention when he reached the back nine on the final day of that year’s Master, he played those nine holes majestically in six under par, goose pimples and hairs standing up all over Augusta as time and again he poured a putt into the hole. Top players of the time, Norman, Kite and Seve we’re all in front of him, but all had pay homage to the Master one last time. It’s also fitting for the game of golf that its greatest champion also produced one of the greatest pieces of sportsmanship ever. With Tony Jacklin facing a tricky putt of around three feet to halve the Ryder Cup in 1969, Nicklaus conceded the putt with words along the lines of, ‘Didn’t think you’d miss that Tony, but under the circumstances I wasn’t going to give you the opportunity’. Classy player, classy person.

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Doc Wordinger profile image

Doc Wordinger 5 years ago from Manchester, UK

I think your top ten would be similar to mine if I was to write a list although I'd find it difficult to exclude Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. I'd also be tempted to bump Tiger up to 3rd. Hogan and Nicklaus are definitely in the right spot. Hogan was the greatest ball striker but Nicklaus had the best all-round game including mental strength. Making a top ten list (or top fifteen in your case) is very subjective but I think you've done a good job here. Great hub.

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