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The Greatest Golfers of All Time

Updated on August 24, 2009

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.


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    • profile image

      alynprm 5 years ago

      Well the test has always been majors. There is no doubt Jack Nicklaus's record in the majors is far and above anyone that has ever played the game. First thing Tiger is NOT an accurate driver of the golf ball. Jack accuracy was much better. Jack also proportionally was longer than Tiger off the tee. Lastly, Jack's short game , I would agree was not in the league Tiger's was in Tiger's best years, but Jack was underrated in that area of the game. If Tiger wins 5 or more majors before it is all over for him, I would concede he at that time would be the best golfer of all time, but he has a long way to go. He will never match Jack Nicklaus's over all record in the majors, but I think if he wins 5 or more majors from this point out (he currently has 14) he will go down as the greatest golfer ever. UNTIL THAT DAY, JACK NICKLAUS IS THE GREATEST GOLFER TO EVER HAVE PLAYED THE GAME. Easy comparison is Bobby Jones who won the GRAND SLAM and has 13 majors and retired at the age of 28. If you say Tiger is the best based on his reduced numbers in the majors, you have to go a step further and say Bobby Jones who won 13 majors in a shorter amount of time is the best If he continued he may have 25 major victories. So for now based on the over all record in the majors it is JACK NICKLAUS.

    • profile image

      Zeus 6 years ago

      I would say Tiger is the best ever right now. And, it isn't even close.

      At different times, Tiger won 5 consecutive pga events, 6 consecutive pga events, and 7 consecutive pga events. I think we all know how difficult it is to accomplish those streaks.

      That shows dominance and greatness. I am not sure if Jack Nicklaus has even won 3 pga events consecutively.

    • SilkDepartment profile image

      SilkDepartment 6 years ago

      The hub says greatest golfers of all time NOT greatest ambassadors for golf......How do you know if Jack Nicklaus ever cheated on his wife ? Back then there was nowhere near the amount of scrutiny there is today nor was the depth of golfers better back then than today. I NEVER said Jack didn't have competition. Read what I wrote. I said the depth of golfers who can win is greater today than it's ever been. As a consequence it is harder to win consistently today. The fact that Tiger is within reach of winning the most majors ever is freakish for he plays in an era of professionalism in golf that has never been seen before. How many players back in Nicklaus' era worked out in the gym ? How many had life coaches, psychologists, dieticians etc ?? These days it's far more competitive as you can set yourself up for life with 1 or 2 good weeks.....

    • profile image

      Hector 6 years ago

      The list is right. Modern golfers are better. It's like drag racing a 250hp 3 speed 57' Chevy Bel Air vs. a 2012 Twin Turbo AWD GTR with 530hp and a 7 speed. Mr. Woods character is not of a respectable man Nicklaus is. Nicklaus still leads in wins & majors, Nicklaus is. Woods is an athlete, Nicklaus was not. Who was "so & so" overall? A cheater, liar and bad mouthed or a family man still leading in both majors & PGA wins. I don't trust Woods anymore than the 20 times he cheated on his wife. Don't trust him to push papers.

    • mickeuan profile image

      mickeuan 6 years ago

      I don't agree with the order either. Nicklaus will always be a greater golfer than Woods - it is not just wins that count but the conduct, manners, maturity, and whether the golfer was an ambassador to the game or not.

      As to the comment from SilkDepartment saying that Jack didn't have much competition in his day! How about Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Seve Ballasteros, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, etc.

      Finally, I too would like to see Phil Mickelson on the list.

    • SilkDepartment profile image

      SilkDepartment 6 years ago

      Very harsh hal noll. You could easily have Tiger at 1 now. You go on like that's outrageous. As great as Nicklaus was, the depth of the fields Tiger has been beating up on for 10 plus years far outweighs the depth of fields Nicklaus was beating. That's not a knock on Jack Nicklaus as you can only beat what's put in front of you but rather that is the fact of the matter. Nearly every country in the world plays golf these days whereas 30 years ago it was mainly the English speaking countries who produced top level golfers. Hence the reason we have the continental Europeans competing in the Ryder Cup now and the reason why the Presidents Cup was born. There are at least 60 legitimate winning chances at any tournament of any week these days whereas back in Jack's day that was simply not the case. To dominate golf today is immeasurably harder for this reason........

    • profile image

      hal noll 6 years ago

      What clown says Wood's is better than Nicklaus. This idiot probably is one of those guys that thinks Tyson would have beaten Louis or Ali, or Kareem would have eaten up Russell,

      or Brady is better than Montana, Elway, or Unitas. You get my drift. Whomever puts credibility in this jerks picks does not know much about sports !

    • profile image

      Vardon me ma'am 7 years ago

      I don't agree with your rankings.

    • profile image

      Tiger Jack 7 years ago

      I think it is apparent now why Jack Nicklaus is the greatest champion golfer of all time. Some golfers had more skill (Snead, Woods, Hogan, Jones) but none of them could match Nicklaus on a career and that is what we are talking about. Tiger's body is breaking down. Whether it will ever be said, or not, steroids and not being able to feel his body during the swing are his down fall. He will not win another major the rest of his career. It is a shame I am still a big fan of his. But sadly it is the truth.

    • Doc Wordinger profile image

      Doc Wordinger 7 years ago from Manchester, UK

      I think Sarazen definitely deserves to be higher considering what he achieved in the majors. Other than that, it's a well informed list.

    • Nick Penn profile image

      Nick Penn 7 years ago from Pennslyvania

      I am surprised with the commentators recently who are claiming Tiger has reached his prime and will not beat Jack's majors record. He has had a tough year we all know that, but he will return to his prime and beat that record...I am not going to say he is better than Jack...yet, but when he beats that record he will solidify the top spot!

    • Pure Chiropractic profile image

      Pure Chiropractic 7 years ago from Nanaimo

      I'm with Ross. Great list, but some would debate the order. If Tiger keeps playing the way he is he might drop down the rank!

    • ross670daw profile image

      ross670daw 7 years ago

      Like your list and your hub, however, I am not convinced of the order in which you have placed these champions. Everyone has an opinion though. You have written good summaries of each of them as well. My favorite is Greg Norman, though he suffered a long streak of bad luck in the majors, due to pressure I guess, otherwise a great career and great to watch.

    • profile image

      Micheal 8 years ago

      Byron Nelson beat on Hogan like a rented mule. He beat Hogan every way one man can beat another on the golf course. Hogan did not win his first major until AFTER Byron had announced his retirement. Bobby Jones behind Ben Hogan. You can't be serious.

    • profile image

      Eric 8 years ago

      Agreed about Mickelson. And Trevino better than Palmer? What have you been smoking?

    • profile image

      Jimmy 8 years ago

      When is someone going to put Lefty on one of these lists. He should be ahead of Norman atleast


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