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The Greatest Golfers of All Time
Who are the greatest golfers ever to play the game? The top four are, I think, pretty clear cut. Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and Bobby Jones were all the greatest of their respective generations, and deserving of their places at the top. After those four, however, things become more subjective.
Comparing players of different eras isn't easy, although the golf swing really hasn't changed very much since World War II. I have little doubt that players like San Snead and Arnold Palmer would be just as good today, playing with modern equipment, as they were in their own heydays. This sets golf apart from many other sports, where standards of athleticism have changed greatly over time.
Here then is my list of the greatest golfers of all time:
1. Tiger Woods - 14 Majors, 70 PGA Tour Wins, 36 PGA European Tour Wins
The ultimate five skill player: drives for power, drives for accuracy, great iron player, great short game, great putter. Needs five more major wins to surpass Nicklaus, but at age 33, who can doubt that he'll get there. Incredibly, he's third on the all-time U.S and European PGA tours for wins.
2. Jack Nicklaus - 18 Majors, 73 PGA Tour Wins
A dominant player for twenty years. A somewhat suspect short game was the only flaw his otherwise superlative golf game. His astonishing record in major championships (the only tournaments that seemed to mean much to him) includes not just 18 wins, but 19 runners-up, and 73 top ten finishes. In the 1970s he had 8 wins and 35 top tens in 40 major championship starts.
3. Ben Hogan - 9 Majors, 64 PGA Tour Wins
Laconic Texan who could be a prickly character at times is by acclamation the best iron player of all time. Won 9 major championships, a remarkable total considering that he only played in the British Open once, and was involved in a severe automobile accident at age 36, which set him back a few years.
4. Bobby Jones - 7 Majors, 9 PGA Tour Wins, 5 U.S. Amateur Wins
The last of the great amateur players. Retired from competition at the age of 28, after compiling an incredible record, during which he won 3 out of the four British Opens, and finished first or second in 8 of the 11 U.S. Opens in which he competed.
5. Walter Hagen - 11 Majors, 44 PGA Tour Wins
"The Haig" was a colorful bon vivant, who between drinking bouts found time to be the greatest professional of his time. He may have been the best match play player of all time as witness by his 7 wins in the PGA Championship, which was a match play tournament at the time.
6. Sam Snead - 7 Majors, 82 PGA Tour Wins
Sweet swinging "Slammin' Sammy" was one of the great ball strikers of his or any other era. An inconsistent putting stroke led him to adopt a "sidewinder" putting style, which didn't keep him from winning prolifically. His 82 tour wins is still the record (until Tiger Woods gets around to breaking it).
7. Tom Watson - 8 Majors, 39 PGA Tour Wins
During his peak years Watson was known as a superlative putter, and a brilliant, but inconsistent iron player. His near miss at the 2009 British Open notwithstanding, Watson's career peak was relatively brief. 34 of his 39 wins came in an eight year stretch from 1977 to 1984, and he won only three times after age 35. Only the lack of a PGA Championship win kept him from completing the career grand slam.
8. Lee Trevino - 6 Majors, 29 PGA Tour Wins
Not a long hitter, but solid in every other aspect of the game. Would have won more had he not gotten a late start to professional golf, and also been struck by lightning at age 35, setting him back for several years. In addition, his Senior Tour record is second only to that of Hale Irwin.
9. Byron Nelson - 5 Majors, 52 PGA Tour Wins
Won an incredible 11 consecutive tournaments, and 18 overall in 1945. Known as a great ball striker, his swing was the model for the "Iron Byron" mechanical device used to test golf equipment. Retired prematurely at age 34 because the nervous strain of competition was becoming too much for him.
10. Arnold Palmer - 7 Majors, 62 PGA Tour Wins
His blue collar roots and outgoing personality made Palmer the idol of millions. Ultimately eclipsed by Jack Nicklaus as the dominant player on the PGA Tour, but never as the favorite of the galleries.
11. Gary Player - 9 Majors, 24 PGA Tour Wins
Diminutive South African got the most from his game. Not a long hitter, but a very solid iron player, and a fine putter. Also known as perhaps the best bunker player ever.
12. Severiano Ballesteros - 5 Majors, 9 PGA Tour Wins, 50 PGA European Tour Wins
The great Spaniard could be a spectacularly erratic driver, but more than made up for it with his legendary short game and great putting. May have been the best match play player since Walter Hagen, with a stellar record at the Ryder Cup and the World Match Play Championship (five time winner).
13. Nick Faldo - 6 Majors, 9 PGA Tour Wins, 30 PGA European Tour Wins
A great iron player, along with Ballesteros he led the revival of European golf in the 1980s. Never a long hitter or a great putter, he always seemed to be at his best in pressure situations.
14. Greg Norman - 2 Majors, 20 PGA Tour Wins, 14 European Tour Wins
The "Great White Shark's" record seems a little thin considering his immense talent. A do-it-all player in the mode of Tiger Woods, a combination of bad luck (e.g. Larry Mize's chip-in at the Masters) and erratic play under pressure combined to keep him from winning as often as it seems he should have.
15. Gene Sarazen - 7 Majors, 39 PGA Tour Wins
"The Squire" is perhaps best known for his double-eagle 2 at the 15th hole at Augusta on his way to winning the 1935 Masters. He also invented the modern sand wedge, being the first to create a wedge with "bounce" to cut through the sand.