Can you name the 25 greatest golfers of all time? Seems like that ought to be an easy enough list to assemble, except it’s not. How can you truly compare players who played the same sport but were separated by 150 years, and the gulf in equipment and course conditions that naturally developed over such a span?
So we’re imposing a few common sense ground rules here. First, this is a list of male golfers. It’s hard enough to compare players over time – if you add the difference in gender and the differing evolution of the PGA and LPGA tours, confident comparisons become almost impossible. There’s enough great history in women’s golf that those players deserve a top 25 list of their own.
Let’s also stipulate that modern competitive golf did not commence until the first Open Championship (aka the British Open), played in 1860, while the beginnings of true tour golf in the United States date back to the 1920s. So there are only two golfers on the list who were playing professionally prior to 1910. Some of the game’s greatest early players who won multiple Open Championships, such as Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris, Willie Park Sr., John Henry Taylor and James Braid, aren’t included here. There just weren’t enough data points to reasonably evaluate them.
As to the makeup of the list itself, some things won’t surprise you. You can get 99.9 percent of golf experts to agree on two names at the very top, followed by a brigade or so of 10-12 names that would be agreed upon as royalty. From there, it gets more open to interpretation. Wins matter, but just like real golf has proven over the decades, major wins really matter. That is given the weight it deserves.
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So here are our choices for the top 25 golfers of all time.
25. Ernie Els
For the first 11 years of his tour career, Els seemed destined to be a number of slots higher on this list. Over that span, from ages 24 through 35, he won 15 times on the PGA Tour and another 14 times on the European Tour. The big South African with the most enviable swing tempo in golf, earning him the nickname “The Big Easy,” also made his first U.S. victory a major, a memorable playoff win over Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and he added a second U.S. Open in 1997.
When he claimed the Open Championship in 2002, he appeared to be the player who had the game to slow down Tiger Woods, but in fact, he has gone on to claim the semi-dubious title of the player who has the most runner-up finishes to Tiger. (He’s finished second 17 times overall in his PGA Tour career, with another 18 third-place showings.) He was also the unlucky victim of Phil Mickelson’s 20-foot birdie putt to win the 2004 Masters title, edging Els by a single shot. Despite those things, Els has the kind of resume that 98 percent of his colleagues in golf would gladly swap with. Els added a fourth major with the 2012 Open Championship, ascended to become No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings three different times, and, at 788 weeks, has spent the second most time in the world top 10 since its introduction in 1986. In total, Els has 71 wins total worldwide, with 19 on the PGA Tour and 28 on the European Tour.
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24. Jim Barnes
“Long Jim” Barnes is a name that may surprise you, but your golf-loving great-grandfather likely knew who he was. Barnes is one of the two golfing pioneers on this list, starting his pro career in 1906 when he arrived in the United States from his native England. In the formative years of what would become tour golf, Barnes was a major force, winning 19 times between 1916 and 1926, and then adding two more titles later to reach 21 for his career. In the limited schedule that existed in 1919, Barnes won five times in that year alone.
But what really lifts Barnes above others who were under consideration for this list’s final spots was his record in the majors. Today, he is credited with a not-too-shabby four titles – the 1916 and 1919 PGA Championships, the 1921 U.S. Open and the 1925 Open Championship – making him one of 12 players all-time who have won three of the four legs of the modern Grand Slam. But Barnes’ name should get an asterisk on that list, as the only missing credential for that modern Grand Slam is a Masters title, and Barnes never even competed at Augusta. The event was birthed in 1934 at the tail end of his career. However, at the time when Barnes did compete, two other tournaments were considered majors – the Western Open outside Chicago, and the North and South Open played at Pinehurst. Barnes won the former three times and the latter twice, giving him at the time he retired nine major titles, a figure that if it were recognized today, would tie him with Ben Hogan and Gary Player for fourth overall in most career majors.
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23. Rory McIlroy
We go from an Englishman of long ago to an Irish player who is the youngest on our list. Rory McIlroy is only 32, and of all the so-called “Young Guns” that get endlessly talked about by television announcers, McIlroy clearly has achieved the most.
Like Jim Barnes, McIlroy is a member of the three-fourths club, having won every major but the Masters in the 12 seasons since his PGA Tour debut. He was the wunderkind who looked most likely to be inheriting Tiger Woods’ mantle as the game’s dominant player when he won the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 Open Championship and PGA Championship (by a tournament record eight-shot margin), and then the PGA again in 2014. Since then, he’s stalled. His best Masters finish was fourth in 2015 (when he was shooting for his third straight major), but that’s a bit misleading, as that was the year Jordan Spieth blew away the field by setting the 36- and 54-hole scoring records and tying the overall 72-hole record of 18-under, allowing no one closer than three shots to the lead all weekend. McIlroy ultimately finished six shots behind. The Masters thus far that was truly his best chance was the 2011 event, where Rory fired an opening 65 and held a four-shot lead going into Sunday, but after making the turn with the lead, he wilted with a second-nine 43 on his way to an 80, leaving him all the way back at tied for 15th.
The diminutive 5-foot-9 McIlroy has made his mark as one of the longest and most impressive drivers on tour, and even though he hasn’t added any majors in the last six years, he has posted eight top 10s in majors, including his best finish since 2014, a tie for second at the 2018 Open Championship. He won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup in 2016, won the FedEx Cup again in 2019, and has recorded 19 wins on the PGA Tour and another 14 wins on the European Tour in his career. He won every major year-end award in golf in 2012 and again in 2014. McIlroy has played for the European side in the last five Ryder Cups, helping lead his teams to victory four times in that span.
He has spent 95 weeks in his career as No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and was in the top 10 for seven straight years from 2011-2017, with the exception of a single week in 2014 when he slipped to 11th. A series of health issues and struggles with a balky putter have slowed him at times in recent seasons, but McIlroy reclaimed his throne at No. 1 in the world in early 2020. However, that only lasted five months, and after up-and-down play over the past year, McIlroy currently sits 9th in the world.
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22. Bobby Locke
The rejoinder to mention of Bobby Locke’s name now might be “Who?” but Locke has a deserved place among the game’s all-time best players, even if it wasn’t always certain where his game was welcomed. Before there was Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen or Charl Schwartzel, Locke was the first great South African to march onto the international stage and show he could win major titles. He won four of them, in fact, all coming in the form of Open Championships in the span from 1949 through 1957.
Locke rode a reputation as one of the game’s all-time best putters to low scores wherever he played. After serving in the South African Air Force in World War II, Locke played a series of 16 exhibition matches in South Africa with visiting golfer Sam Snead in early 1947. When Locke dominated, with Snead only scoring outright wins in two matches, the Slammer suggested Locke give the PGA Tour a try. Locke came over and was instantly dominant, winning four of the first six tournaments he entered. He added two more victories the rest of that summer, and then won twice in 1948 – including a win at the Chicago Victory Open which set a PGA Tour record that still stands today as the largest margin of victory (16 strokes).
About that time, some American players started grumbling about aspects of Locke’s presence, and grounds were found to ban him from the PGA Tour. The ban was eventually lifted, but Locke wasn’t keen on returning. In all, he recorded 15 PGA Tour wins over 11 years (a number that includes his Open titles), and in 59 PGA Tour events he played between 1947 through 1949, he posted top three finishes an astounding 30 times.
Following his ban, Locke became a player who would play all over the world, including winning the 1955 Australian Open. Besides his Open Championships, Locke won 19 other events across Europe in the era before the continent had an organized tour, while in his native South Africa, he posted 30 career wins on the Sunshine Tour, third most in that tour’s long history.
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21. Raymond Floyd
An unlikely looking champion with his thick build, Raymond Floyd rode one of the great competitive spirits the game has ever seen to a distinguished career that featured 22 PGA Tour titles and 65 victories all told worldwide. Playing 32 seasons on the PGA Tour followed by a successful Champions Tour run, Floyd was frequently a threat lurking close by during the era when Nicklaus, Palmer and Watson were the marquee players.
He first won on the PGA Tour at the 1963 St. Petersburg Open and seemed to just grow better and better as a player as his career played out over the next three decades. Another member of the near-Grand Slam club, Floyd came extremely close to capturing that coveted status. He won his first major with the 1969 PGA Championship, one of three wins he recorded that season. Strikingly, he wouldn’t win again until 1975, but he was far from done in his career. He shot 65-66 the first two days to set up one of the most dominant Masters victories in history in 1976, winning by eight shots over runner-up Ben Crenshaw.
He claimed his 11th tour title in 1979 with the Greater Greensboro Open title, particularly satisfying as it came in his home state of North Carolina. Significant victories came with the PLAYERS Championship title at TPC Sawgrass in 1981 and The Memorial in 1982, a period after which he rose to status as the No. 2 player in the world. A second PGA Championship also came in 1982 when Floyd, on the cusp of turning 40, shot 63 the first day in 100-degree plus temperatures at Southern Hills in Tulsa, setting up a wire-to-wire victory. Floyd added yet another jewel to his collection in 1986, when he went to Shinnecock Hills and surged from behind with a final round 66 to claim the U.S. Open.
His best chance at an Open Championship came in 1978 at St. Andrews, where he ultimately finished in a tie for second with three other players, two shots behind Jack Nicklaus. Floyd often played well at Augusta, posting top 10 finishes 11 times, and had two near-misses late in his career – in 1990, he lost a playoff to Nick Faldo, while in 1992 at age 49, he finished as runner-up again, two shots behind Fred Couples. He won on tour that season, and at age 50, was still ranked 14th in the world. His subsequent Champions Tour career includes four Senior major championships.
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20. Jimmy Demaret
When the wind is going to be a factor at an event, it seems one of the first reactions is often to look at the Texas contingent on tour and say the conditions will favor whoever is seen as the state’s best wind player. Even playing alongside the Lone Star state’s two greatest players in history, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret was the master of the windy round.
Demaret hit the ball low and could shape it, a style that a lot of the great old players utilized. For Demaret, those skills allowed him to rack up 31 wins on the PGA Tour across a 20-year career. Widely known for his big personality and colorful wardrobe, Demaret’s greatest on-course accolade was that he was the first man to accumulate Masters titles in three different years – 1940, 1947 and 1950. Only three players have won more than three Masters in their careers, and they all are easily recognized by single names by golf fans – Arnie, Jack and Tiger.
In two separate seasons, Demaret recorded six victories on tour. In 1940, that tally included the Masters and the Western Open. In 1947, it was another Masters and a pair of two-man tournament titles where his partner was Ben Hogan. Having Hogan accept you as a playing partner would stand up as a pretty solid stamp of approval for your golfing ability. Demaret’s fame was widely enough recognized that he once appeared as a guest star on an episode of I Love Lucy with Lucille Ball.
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19. Vijay Singh
If there is a modern great champion who remains a blank slate personally to most golf fans, it’s Vijay Singh. That’s a shame, because if you subscribe to P.G. Wodehouse’s theory of “To find a man’s true character, play golf with him,” Singh clearly has displayed some laudable characteristics with a golf club in his hands and pressure on the line.
Very quiet by nature, the native of Fiji is not unlike Raymond Floyd in that as he grew older, his game just seemed to get stronger and stronger. He turned pro in 1982, but didn’t qualify to the European Tour until 1988. It took work – and when it comes to putting in time on the range, Singh was known for years as the hardest worker in golf. He won on the European Tour for the first time in 1989 with the Volvo Open, and after moving to the PGA Tour in 1993, he won the very first event he entered, the Buick Classic. In fact, a case could be made that any time the event title included the name “Buick,” Singh seemed to summon his best, winning three Buick Opens and two Buick Classics among his 34 wins overall in PGA Tour play.
Another level was yet to come. The man whose first name means “Victory” in his native language, broke through to win his first major in 1998, earning the PGA Championship at Sahalee in Seattle. He followed that up the next week with a victory at The International, something that rarely happens for those who go through the meat-grinder of the pressure that comes in winning a major. Tiger Woods’ first era of dominance, leading the tour in earnings four straight seasons from 1999 through 2002, saw Singh hang in there with four victories over that time, including perhaps Singh’s finest hour, winning the 2000 Masters by a three-shot margin over runner-up Ernie Els. And when Tiger’s game finally cooled, it was Singh who was there to seize the moment. Singh finished No. 1 on the money list on the PGA Tour in both 2003 and 2004, with four wins the first year and a tremendous nine-win season in ’04, the year he turned 40. That is tied for the fifth-most wins in a single year in PGA Tour history, and his victory total — which included another PGA Championship, this one at Whistling Straits – made him the first player to crack the $10 million mark in a single season. He capped one of the greatest seasons in history by winning the Deutsche Bank Championship over Labor Day to displace Woods as the new No. 1 player in the world rankings, ending Tiger’s 264-week streak on top.
It turned out that 40 was just a number for Singh, as he continued to pile up wins, breaking Sam Snead’s record for most wins over 40 with 22. A sudden red-hot streak late in 2008 featured three wins in two months, including the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, enough to earn Singh a third money title and the FedEx Cup. Singh’s career total of 34 PGA Tour wins set the record for the most by any non-American, and he owns a career total of 63 wins worldwide.
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18. Nick Faldo
If Vijay Singh was a blank slate to golf fans, Nick Faldo was an inscrutable wall. The glib announcer who has such obvious joy describing great golf on CBS today was closer to “The Terminator” in demeanor when a major championship was in his sights. He only won nine times on the PGA Tour, but then again, only played the majority of his golf in the U.S. across a seven-season span.
When the stakes were highest, Faldo usually summoned his best. Already a highly accomplished player, a young Faldo felt he could be better and allowed famed teacher David Leadbetter to help him build a new swing. On the day after his 30th birthday, Faldo – already a 12-time winner on the European Tour – won his first major, claiming the 1987 Open Championship at Muirfield. It was the start of something big. He was on his way to becoming the No. 1 golfer in the world, a distinction he would hold for 97 weeks, and for the next nine years, he was a factor in most of the majors that were played.
In all, he would score six major victories in his career, tied for the 12th most in golf history. In 1988, he didn’t win any of the four, but he scored a second, third and fourth, in order, in the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA. He added a Masters title in 1989 and then repeated in 1990, winning both in playoffs and becoming the first player to achieve that feat since Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and ’66. The only other player to do it in Masters history is Tiger Woods. His 1990 Masters title was followed by a tie for third – one shot out of a playoff won by Hale Irwin – at the U.S. Open and then his second Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
From 1990 through ’99, Faldo was easily recognized by having the only female caddie at the top level of tour golf, Fanny Sunneson, and together they won four majors together. After a substandard 1991 season, Faldo was back at it in 1992, finishing in the top four in three of the four majors, including his third Open title, this one again at Muirfield. Faldo had four more top 10s, including three top-four finishes, over the eight majors in 1993 and ’94 and, after again going cold in 1995, he won the final of his six majors – his third Masters – in 1996.
In his career, he produced top-10 finishes in 26 different majors. He never won either the U.S. Open or the PGA, but he did place second in both, putting him tantalizingly close to career Grand Slam territory. Overall, Faldo posted 41 career wins, including 30 on the European Tour, making him the fifth-winningest player in that tour’s history. He also was one of the players who helped lift the European side to new heights in the Ryder Cup, playing on the team 11 times and scoring 25 points in his career.
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17. Seve Ballesteros
Pro golf always benefits when a player who captures the public’s imagination emerges, and for the first time in the game’s history, a player with that kind of magic arrived from continental Europe when Severiano Ballesteros came roaring out of Spain. He announced himself to the world at the age of 18, coming out of nowhere to finish second in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, nearly winning the world’s oldest title by leading after the third round before a final day 74 left him tied with Jack Nicklaus for second.
He followed with his first European Tour title the next summer, the 1976 Dutch Open, the first of nine wins in Europe over a four-year stretch. His swing could appear unconventional and his style wild, which only added to the thrill of following Seve. He was likely as good as the game ever saw for manufacturing shots to get himself out of trouble. He captured his first major in 1979, still just age 22, and did it in what would come to be recognized as pure Seve style – he shot 73-65-75-70, bouncing up and down and clinching the title by moving to a three-shot advantage at Royal Lytham with two holes remaining when he made birdie on No. 16, despite having his drive go so far off-line that he played out of an area where spectator cars were parked!
He followed the next spring with his first Masters title, which at the same time was dominant and a thrill ride. Seve held a seven-shot lead after 54 holes, but didn’t hold back on Sunday, birdieing three of the five holes to extend the lead to 10 and put him in contention for the all-time Masters scoring record. However, on the second nine, he put balls in the water twice and saw his lead shrink to three shots after he played the 13th hole. He regained his balance, though, and ended up winning by four. Seve never managed to win any U.S. Open or PGA Championship titles, but The World Golf Ranking System was established in 1986, and the top spot bounced back and forth 10 times between Seve and Greg Norman from ’86 through 1989. Seve ranks sixth all-time for most time at No. 1, with a total of 61 weeks. From 1983 through 1989, Seve was a dominant majors player, winning a second Masters in ’83, and adding two more Open Championships in 1984 and 1988. Of 28 majors contested over that span, Seve posted top 10 finishes 14 times.
Back issues slowed his career late, but he still has a European Tour record with 50 victories, and he may have been the single-most important player in breathing life into the Ryder Cup. Along with captain Tony Jacklin, Seve helped launch Europe to unprecedented success. Seve played in eight Ryder Cups altogether and was on the winning side in four of the final six. Along with fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, he was part of the most successful pairing in Ryder Cup history, winning 11 matches against only two halves and two losses. And in a fitting climatic moment, Seve captained the 1997 European side to victory at Valderrama in Spain, the first time the matches ever were played in continental Europe.
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16. Cary Middlecoff
Cary Middlecoff got a late start on his pro golf career, finishing dentistry school and setting up shop as a dentist until age 26. Then he decided it was time to start drilling tee shots.
He still ranks 10th today in all-time PGA Tour wins, with 40 titles, despite his late start and back problems that kept him from winning after the age of 40. Perhaps the ultimate accolade to attach to Middlecoff’s career is the fact that in the decade of the 1950s – when the competition could include such names as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper – no one had more victories than Middlecoff. In those 10 seasons, he earned 28 victories. In three separate seasons – 1949, ’51 and ’56 – he won six events.
His first victory came while he was an amateur and still had his dental practice, winning the North and South Open title in 1945 after returning from World War II, where he served in the Army Dental Corps. He won the first of his three major titles in 1949, claiming the U.S. Open title at Medinah (that was the Open that Hogan missed while in recovery from his auto accident). He added the title of Masters champion to his resume in 1955, in what might have been the finest moment of his career. Middlecoff finished at 9-under, seven shots ahead of second-place finisher, Ben Hogan. The next year, he added a second U.S. Open title in the first major ever contested at Oak Hill. He nearly went back-to-back with Open titles, birdieing the 72nd hole in the 1957 championship held at Iverneness in Toledo, Ohio, before losing to Dick Mayer in a playoff the next day.
Middlecoff’s best chance to win a PGA Championship came in 1955. The event was still using a match-play format, and he made it to the finals before losing to Doug Ford, 4 & 3. His only chance to win an Open Championship title came in 1957 on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the only year he elected to make the trip over for the tournament. Middlecoff ended up 14th in that event.
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15. Harry Vardon
Vardon is a name that has made an indelible impact on golf history. The conventional grip that most golfers use is the Vardon grip, the trophy given to the PGA Tour player with the lowest scoring average for the season the Vardon Trophy. Why does a player like Harry Vardon, who won his last individual title before World War I began, still carry such a legacy today? It’s because he was likely professional golf’s first superstar.
Some of those earlier British players mentioned in the introduction were certainly famous within the UK, but Vardon took golf international – and his reputation preceded him. Originally a greenskeeper, he became a club pro and won his first Open Championship at Muirfield in 1896 at the age of 26. Interest in golf rose rapidly with the emergence of Vardon and two rivals, John Henry Taylor and James Braid. Over a period of 20 years, the three combined to win 16 Open Championships and became known as “The Great Triumverate.”
What Vardon was doing for the sport became clear after he won his second Open at Prestwick in 1898. Having edged Willie Park Jr. by a single shot, Park Jr. proposed a high-money 72-hole match with Vardon. It didn’t come off until Vardon had repeated as Open champ in 1899 at Royal St. George’s, and the first two rounds in Scotland drew an overwhelming turnout of 10,000 fans. “The Greatest Golf Competition of All-time,” as the press was billing it, turned into a rout once Vardon got back on his home soil at Ganton, Yorkshire, with Vardon winning the match-play event 11 & 10.
Golf was just starting to come into its own in the United States, and in 1900, Vardon made the voyage overseas for a 90-match exhibition tour which culminated in his first entry into the U.S. Open, being contested for only the sixth time. Vardon did not disappoint, topping his rival Taylor by two strokes in a top 10 that was entirely from the UK. (It wasn’t until John McDermott in 1911 that an American finally won the U.S. Open.) Vardon played in only three U.S. Opens, and was runner-up the other two times – the last in 1920, when he was 50 years old, at Inverness in Toledo, where he had a five-shot lead during the final round but ended up losing by one stroke. Vardon’s other U.S. Open appearance in 1913 is one of the great legends of golf, as Vardon and compatriot Ted Ray were bested in a playoff at the Country Club of Brookline, Mass., by a complete unknown, 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet.
Vardon did set a record that still stands, though, by winning his sixth Open Championship title in 1914, a mark at a single major matched only by Jack Nicklaus’ six Masters titles. Vardon also finished as runner-up in the Open Championship four times, giving him a total of seven wins and six second-place finishes in the only two majors he ever played in. In addition to his seven majors, Vardon is credited with 42 other professional tournament victories between 1896 and 1914.
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14. Lee Trevino
Jack Nicklaus was a great golfer, but he was also a very serious golfer. His contemporary who was also a great champion but stood out by the contrast in personalities was “The Merry Mex,” Lee Trevino.
Growing up poor as a Mexican-American in Texas, Trevino discovered the game all on his own, which helped account for his remarkable ability to hit whatever kind of shot the situation called for. Learning to play the game off hardpan in the caddie yard at Dallas Athletic Club, Trevino’s swing was unconventional, but so were his skills. After a stint in the Marines, he took a club pro position in El Paso, Texas, in 1960. He qualified to the U.S. Open for the first time in 1966, making the cut. He qualified again in 1967, and this time finished 49 spots higher than the previous year – a fifth-place finish which earned him $6,000 and PGA Tour privileges for the remainder of the year. By 1968, he’d totally gotten the hang of it, winning his first U.S. Open title at Oak Hill, defeating Nicklaus by four shots. Nicklaus had ascended past Arnold Palmer to reign over the golf world in the mid-1960s, but soon after, if Jack had a tormenter-in-chief of his own, it was Trevino. Trevino had a phenomenal 1971 season, winning six events, including an incredible run of three over 20 days – his second U.S. Open title at Merion over Nicklaus in a playoff, the Canadian Open title two weeks later and then his first Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. It was enough to earn him Sports Illustrated’s coveted “Sportsman of the Year” title.
In the 1972 Open Championship at Muirfield, it came down to Trevino and Nicklaus again. Posting a third round of 66 built on five straight second nine birdies, Trevino did it again, edging Nicklaus by a single shot to win back-to-back Open titles. From 1970 through 1973, Trevino managed eight straight top 10 finishes in the U.S. Open and Open Championships of those years. In 1974, it was time to add a PGA Championship to his accomplishments, and you’ve probably already guessed who the runner-up was – Nicklaus, again by the margin of one stroke. Trevino was famously struck by lightning playing in the Western Open in 1975, which led to back troubles. He recovered well enough, though, to continue extending a streak of winning at least one tournament per season that had started in 1968 and didn’t end until Trevino was 43 years old in 1982. He had one last burst in 1984, winning his second PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, a feat he nearly repeated the following year when he finished as runner-up to Hubert Green at Cherry Hills.
Trevino’s great, natural humor made golf fun for fans, and six major titles in his career justify his popularity. He is on a very select list of players who have won two or more titles at the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – the other three names on the list are Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen. He never managed better than 10th at the Masters, though. Overall, Trevino won 29 times on the PGA Tour and, in helping take senior golf to a new level of popularity, won 29 more events on the Champions Tour.
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13. Billy Casper
One of the best putters in the history of the game, Billy Casper was proof that short game skills were tied to winning more than any other part of the game.
Casper was a prolific winner, ranking seventh in PGA Tour career wins with 51 titles, right between Byron Nelson and Walter Hagen. The 1960s are a decade in golf remembered for Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, but no one in the span from 1964-70 won more times than Casper, who claimed 27 titles in that time frame. Five times in the 1960s, he won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on tour. He also won at least one event in 16 straight seasons, a streak exceeded only by Palmer and Nicklaus. Playing in the Ryder Cup in eight different years, he still holds the U.S. record for most points scored by any individual in that competition.
Casper won three major titles in his career. He claimed the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot with his putting skills, riding 31 one-putts and just 114 putts overall to a one-shot victory over Bob Rosburg. His second career major, the 1966 U.S. Open, was also one of the most dramatic wins in majors history. Playing on the slopes of the Olympic Club, Casper was seven shots off of Arnold Palmer’s lead with only nine holes left to play, but Casper shot a second nine of 3-under par 32, while Palmer made three straight bogeys at one point on his way to a 39. In the 18-hole playoff that followed on Monday, Palmer had a two-stroke lead after nine holes, but a 34 on the second nine by Casper earned him a four-shot victory. The putter once again made a champion of Casper, as he recorded 33 one-putts for the title.
Casper’s final major came at the course where you might think putting would be the greatest asset of all, Augusta National. It took extra golf again for Casper to win the 1970 Masters title, as he went into Sunday with a one-shot lead, but was caught by Gene Littler at 9-under, forcing the last 18-hole playoff in Masters history. Casper was up by five shots after seven holes and never was seriously challenged by Littler after that. It ended a string of frustration for Casper at the Masters, as he placed in the top 10 five times during the previous 10 years, including a tie for second the previous year in 1969.
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12. Phil Mickelson
We’ve reached the point in the top 25 where the need to establish a back story and the rationale behind the player’s selection is not a concern. By almost any objective measure, the remaining players all have resumes that put them in the discussion of the greatest to ever play the game. The newest player to cross that threshold is Phil Mickelson.
Whether Mickelson would fully reach his potential was an open question for many years, thanks to his combination of being ridiculously talented as a shotmaker – particularly in his short game – but also sometimes ridiculously tempted, perhaps because of such talents, to go for the low-percentage play. Winning has never been much of a problem for “Lefty,” as he won his first PGA Tour title while still an amateur in 1991, and after 13 years of tour play, he already had 22 victories, including the 2000 Tour Championship over Tiger Woods. But 46 appearances in major championships to that point had produced 17 top-10 finishes and yet no titles. Golf’s history is populated by numerous highly skilled players who couldn’t quite get over the top for the titles they coveted most of all. Mickelson finally crossed that line at the 2004 Masters, coming through with one of the great clutch putts in tournament history, Mickelson drained an 18-foot birdie on the 18th green to break a tie with Ernie Els and earn his first green jacket.
The following year, it was more 18th hole dramatics at the PGA Championship at Baltrusol. Mickelson’s pitch shot from the rough snuggled up 18 inches from the cup, producing a birdie for his second major. The next major on the schedule, the 2006 Masters, also went to Mickelson, a triumph best-remembered for his decision to go for the green on No. 13 with his ball lying on pine straw and two trees in front of him four feet apart, 209 yards from the pin. His 6-iron ended up three feet from the pin.
Not playing for the percentage, though, came back to bite him at the next major, the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Looking to add the third leg of the career Grand Slam, as well as become the only player to win three consecutive majors besides Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods, he took a one-shot lead into the 18th hole. He chose an aggressive play off the 18th tee and hit his ball so far left it hit a corporate hospitality tent. He took a double-bogey, finishing second to Geoff Ogilvy. It seemed to cement the idea of a U.S. Open jinx for Mickelson. It was the third time he had finished as runner-up, and there were three more still to come – 2006, ’09 and ’13.
Mickelson did add a third Masters in 2010, and then in 2013 he surprised by winning the one major that most people felt least suited his game, the Open Championship. He started the final round five shots off the lead, but responded with a 66 which featured four birdies in the final six holes, a round long-time Mickelson caddie “Bones” Mackay called the greatest of Phil’s career. It was Mickelson’s fifth major to go with 43 career PGA Tour wins, the ninth most in tour history.
Mickelson may have saved his greatest performance for 2021. 30 years after winning on tour as an amateur, Mickelson became the first player over the age of 50 to claim a major. Winning his second PGA Championship, Mickelson navigated the winds brilliantly at Kiawah Island Golf Resort to defeat a stacked field. Just when “Lefty” seemed destined for the Champions Tour, he showed he’s still more than capable of taking down the young guns on golf’s biggest stage.
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11. Gene Sarazen
Golfing eras are often defined by three great players bundled together, and the 1920s and ‘30s were no different. Right there with the names of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen was that of Gene Sarazen.
Ask any fan today what Sarazen is known for, and the most likely answer is “the shot heard round the world.” That was the double-eagle recorded by Sarazen on the 15th hole at Augusta National in the second Masters championship, held in 1935. That single shot did half the damage in Sarazen’s 72-hole total of 6-under par, which put him into a playoff with Craig Wood. Sarazen pulled away for a five-shot victory the next day. The next greatest historic note associated with Sarazen is that he was the first player to accomplish the career Grand Slam, which came with that Masters victory.
Sarazen won seven majors in all – in addition to that Masters, he also won the 1922 and ’32 U.S. Open titles, the 1922, ’23 and ’33 PGA Championships and the 1932 Open Championship. His first U.S. Open title stands out, coming at the age of 20 as he came from behind to beat another 20-year-old, Bobby Jones. Sarazen trailed by four shots going into the final round, but birdied the 18th hole to shoot a 2-under par round of 68, good enough to edge Jones and Scotland’s John Black by a single shot.
His Open Championship in 1932 was also notable, as Sarazen finished at 5-under par, the only player to break par in the only Open held at Prince’s Country Club in Sandwich, England. The Open that year was in early June, so it was actually two weeks later that Sarazen added the ’32 U.S. Open title at Fresh Meadow Country Club in New York. That put him in select company at the time with Jones, as the first two players to have won both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship in the same year. Since then, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods have also joined that list. For that feat, he was named as the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year for 1932.
Sarazen’s legacy is further bolstered by his invention of the sand wedge, coming up with the thick flange design on the leading edge of the club. He first used this innovation in winning his 1932 Open Championship. He recorded 39 career wins on the PGA Tour, eight of them coming in tournaments in Miami, Florida. His best year was 1930, when he won eight events, and his seven career majors are tied for seventh most in golf history.
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10. Tom Watson
Unlike any player on the top 25 list to this point, we will start at the end rather than the beginning in defining Tom Watson’s greatness. In 2009, he came within one eight-foot putt of what would have been the most improbable and possibly greatest major championship in golf history. It was for the Open Championship at Turnberry, and if he had made that putt on the 72nd hole, it would have given Watson his sixth Open title less than two months shy of his 60th birthday. To put that in perspective, it would have tied Harry Vardon for the most Open titles in history and tied Jack Nicklaus and Vardon for most wins in any major. Watson would have been six years older than Sam Snead was when he set the record for the oldest player to win any PGA Tour event. He would have been 13 years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he set the record for the oldest player to win a major, with the 1986 Masters.
Watson is the most successful American player in Open Championship history, with his five titles trailing only Vardon and tied with three others. Watson turned pro in 1971, and became the challenger who would patiently wrestle Jack Nicklaus’ reign atop golf to its end. Watson’s game wasn’t quite ready for the big time in 1974, when he held the 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open, only to finish with a final round 79 in the tournament known as the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” with Hale Irwin outlasting everyone else to win at 7-over par.
But Byron Nelson took note of Watson’s talents, and soon began working with him. A year later, Watson won the Open Championship in his first try, making a 20-foot birdie on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie to force a playoff, then winning the extra 18-hole match the next day over Jack Newton by one shot. Watson and Nicklaus first tangled for a major at the 1977 Masters. Watson reached the 17th green tied with Nicklaus, but as Watson holed a 20-foot birdie to pull ahead, Nicklaus was on 18 making bogey, and Watson won his first Green Jacket by two strokes.
Later that summer, those same two squared off again in the historic “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry for the Open Championship. After two rounds, Nicklaus and Watson were one shot off the lead. Each shot 65 on Saturday to move into a tie for the lead, and then finished on Sunday head-to-head. Still tied after 16 holes, Nicklaus missed a makeable birdie putt at 17 while Watson posted birdie, and then Watson made it a birdie-birdie finish by hitting his approach to two feet on 18. It proved necessary, too, as Nicklaus ran in a 40-foot birdie putt. Watson shot a second straight 65 and Nicklaus had the exact same scores for three rounds and lost with a Sunday 66. No other player in the field was closer than 10 shots behind the leaders.
A Watson bogey on 18 denied him a spot in a playoff as the defending champ at the 1978 Masters, won by Gary Player. Another excruciating loss followed at the PGA that summer at Oakmont, as Watson lost a five-stroke lead after 54 holes with a Sunday 73 that put him in a three-way playoff, won by John Mahaffey. That would be as close as Watson ever came to winning the PGA, which ultimately was his missing link in the career Grand Slam.
Watson did make a playoff in the 1979 Masters, but lost to Fuzzy Zoeller, but even as the decade turned, Watson’s best golf was still ahead of him. He won his second Masters in 1981, beating Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two shots. That also started a run of eight straight years of top 10 finishes at Augusta. He won his third Open Championship in 1980 and won six times overall that year. In 1982, the U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach and Watson went to No. 17 tied for the lead after Nicklaus had made five straight birdies on the back nine to catch him. Watson chipped in from the gnarled rough for birdie, then birdied 18 for good measure, to win his only U.S. Open with the most famous shot of his career.
He added back-to-back Open Championships the next two years and, in the 40 majors that he played during the decade of the ‘80s, Watson finished in the top-10 22 times, including five victories. Watson won the PGA Player of the Year award six times, second to only Tiger Woods in that category, and he ranks 11th all-time in PGA Tour wins (39) and is sixth all-time in majors won with eight titles.
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9. Gary Player
One of the great international ambassadors of the game, Gary Player holds a singular distinction in the annals of golf as the only non-American player to have completed the career Grand Slam.
He would prove to be one of the greatest majors players of all-time, winning nine titles over the course of 20 years, finishing second six more times and posting 44 top-10 major showings in his career. His nine major titles tie him for fourth all-time. By the age of 29, he had completed the Grand Slam with his 1965 U.S. Open victory at Bellerive in St. Louis. But it wasn’t just majors that Player won – he seemed to win wherever he went.
To this day known for his extraordinary commitment to physical fitness, Player won 24 times in a 21-year span on the PGA Tour. In his native South Africa, he is the all-time leader in victories on that country’s Sunshine Tour, having won 63 times – including 13 national titles at the South Africa Open. He made regular appearances on the PGA Tour of Australasia, where he won 18 times, including seven titles at the Australian Open, the most in that event’s history. All told, Player accumulated 165 wins in professional golf, a career total only two other players are near, Robert de Vicenzo (230 victories) and Sam Snead (also 165 victories).
He led the PGA Tour in earnings in 1961, a year in which he won three times, including his first of three Masters titles, edging Arnold Palmer and Charles Coe by one shot. It wasn’t until 1974 that Player won at Augusta again, and then in 1978, at the age of 42, he added another Green Jacket in what may have been his greatest moment as a pro, as well as a demonstration of why the Masters can be so unpredictable. Player trailed by seven shots after 54 holes, but came out on the final day and posted a round of eight-under 64, including a phenomenal 30 on the second nine with six birdies and three pars. Three players finished one shot back as no one could match the brilliance of his finish.
He nearly matched those dramatics six years later, when he was 48 years old and in contention at the PGA Championship, attempting to become the oldest major winner in history. Trailing by two shots after three rounds, he couldn’t keep up with Lee Trevino’s final round 67 at Shoal Creek and finished tied for second with Lanny Wadkins.
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8. Byron Nelson
Golf history is filled with oddities and situations that defy the odds, but the chances that one Texas course would have two teenagers caddying at the same time who would one day rank among the top 10 players in the sport’s history has to stand among the most amazing of coincidences. Byron Nelson caddied alongside Ben Hogan at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, the first of a number of linkages that culminated in their status as the top two golfers in the history of that golf-crazy state.
When Nelson was 14, they competed in golf for the first known time in the club’s caddie tournament, and Nelson won by one stroke – but it took nine extra holes. It must have been a harbinger of how much winning was ahead for Nelson. Nelson won bunches of tournaments in a relatively brief span. He turned pro in 1932 and retired from the PGA Tour 15 years later in 1946, but along the way, he collected 52 tour victories, the sixth-highest total in history. Two streaks in particular speak to the level that Nelson was playing at.
The first is a string of 113 made cuts in a row, the second-best mark in history behind Tiger Woods’ 142 straight events. The catch is that when Nelson played, a “made cut” was defined by the tour as earning money, and most events only paid the top 20 players in the field. So Nelson’s streak was essentially 113 straight events where he posted top-20 finishes. The second streak is more famous – it is Nelson’s PGA Tour-record of 11 straight events won during the 1945 season, a year when he set another tour record with 18 wins total. The streak began with the Miami International Four-Ball in early March and ended with the Canadian Open in early August. It included the PGA Championship, which was the only one of the four majors played that year because of World War II. Some have suggested that Nelson benefited from weaker fields in 1945 because of the war, but the counter-argument is that Nelson set a new PGA Tour record for lowest scoring average in a year at 68.33 strokes. The scoring record stood until it was broken in 2000 by Tiger Woods.
Nelson sandwiched that year with an eight-win season in 1944 and a six-win season in his last full year on tour in 1946. His career included five major championships – the 1937 and ’42 Masters, the 1939 U.S. Open and, in addition to his 1945 PGA title, another in that same event in 1940. Nelson only played the Open Championship two times, with his best showing coming in 1937, when he finished fifth.
Of all his major wins, the most notable was probably his 1942 Masters triumph, the last edition of the event until 1946. Nelson held a three-shot lead after 54 holes over his hometown rival, Hogan, but a Sunday bogey on No. 17 left Nelson with a one-over round of 73, while Hogan came home with a 70 that left the two legends tied. An 18-hole playoff followed the next day, refereed by Bobby Jones. Hogan shot out to a three-shot lead after four holes, but Nelson owned the show the rest of the way in, playing his final 14 holes in five-under par, highlighted by an eagle at No. 8, to win the playoff by one shot.
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7. Arnold Palmer
Golf changed into a sport embraced by the masses after World War II, and no player had a bigger hand in that transition than Arnold Palmer, an “everyman” kind of golfer from Pennsylvania who played with flair and charmed sports fans everywhere with his personality off the course.
Such was Palmer’s popularity that Jack Nicklaus was seen for a number of years as a villain by many golf fans loyal to “Arnie’s Army” as he challenged and eventually surpassed their favorite player. Palmer enthusiasts were in touch with their favorite player as golf fans had never been before with any other player, as the game moved into the television age at the same time that Palmer emerged. Joining the PGA Tour in 1955, Palmer’s game steadily picked up steam. By 1957, he won four events. The next year, he won the first of his four Masters’ titles, thrilling the crowds with an eagle on No. 13 in the final round to set up the win.
The years 1960-63 marked the most prolific period in Palmer’s substantial career victory total of 62 PGA Tour wins, the fifth-best mark in history. He won eight events in 1960, including his second Masters and his only U.S. Open – a two-stroke victory at Cherry Hills over Jack Nicklaus, who was in his last year of amateur play. Palmer was that year’s PGA Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year honoree. He added six more wins in 1961, highlighted by his first victory in the Open Championship, winning at Royal Birkdale after finishing as runner-up in his Open debut the previous season. The 1962 season was another eight-win year for Palmer, and may have been his finest overall. He won the Phoenix Open in February by 12 shots, the widest margin of his career, with second-place finishers including Nicklaus and Billy Casper. In April, he added his third Masters in five years, beating Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald in a playoff. He then repeated as the Open Championship winner, burying the field at Troon by a six-stroke margin. Once again, he won PGA Player of the Year honors. He did have one bitter loss, however, losing the 1962 U.S. Open in a playoff to the then 22-year-old Nicklaus at Oakmont, a course not far from where Palmer grew up in Latrobe, Pa.
Palmer didn’t add any more majors in 1963, but he did win seven more events and was once again the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour. No one had any expectation of it at the time, but Palmer won his seventh and final career major in 1964 at the Masters, totally outclassing the field to win by six shots over second-place finishers Nicklaus and Dave Marr. That was Palmer’s 43rd career win on tour, and he would add another 19 titles before his final victory at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. Six times between his last Masters win and the 1970 PGA Championship (the one title Palmer never got to reach the career Grand Slam), Palmer finished second in major championships. Two of those losses came at the hands of Nicklaus, who by 1966 had clearly become the best player in the game.
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6. Sam Snead
Perhaps no player in the game’s history played better longer than Sam Snead did, and riding along across four decades with one of the smoothest swings in golf history, Snead remains to this day the all-time leader in PGA Tour victories with 82.
A homespun character from the hills of Virginia, Snead won his first PGA Tour title in 1936 in auspicious fashion – he shot a 61 in the second round of a two-day event called the West Virginia Closed Pro to win by 16 shots. Snead’s career bears certain resemblances to that of Phil Mickelson. Like Mickelson, it wasn’t until Snead had racked up a substantial number of tour wins – 27 of them over his first six full years on tour, including an eight-win season in 1938 – before he finally claimed his first major. In Snead’s case, it was the 1942 PGA Championship. Also like Mickelson, the U.S. Open would be the only major title that eluded Snead, as it would consistently slip through his grasp. Snead finished in the top-10 in 12 different years, including finishing as runner-up four times, but could never break through for victory. The most painful of those losses came in 1939 and 1947. In ’39, he needed a birdie on a par-5 on the 72nd hole to win and just a par to force a playoff, but he instead took a triple-bogey. In ‘47, he missed a putt inside of three feet on the final playoff hole, putting the Open trophy in the hands of Lew Worsham.
Enough with the losses, though, as Snead’s career was all about the wins. He was another of those remarkable talents who seemed to get better with age, not really hitting peak form until his mid-to-late 30s. In 1945, he won six times, the same number of wins he recorded the following season, which was highlighted by his only Open Championship title. It came at St. Andrews by four shots, in one of the five Open Championship trips that Snead made, although it must be said that it is hard to visualize the country boy in the straw hat strolling to victory on the Old Course. He won six tour events in a year for the fourth time in his career in 1949, which was also notable as the only year he won multiple majors. Snead shot back-to-back weekend rounds of 67 to win the Masters in the year that the Green Jacket tradition for the winner was started. He added the PGA Championship at the Hermitage Club in his native Virginia just over a month later. Remarkably, it was the only season in which Snead won the PGA Player of the Year award.
Four more of his seven majors total were still ahead of him, though. He had his winningest year in 1950 with 11 victories, the third most in one season in PGA Tour history. He won the PGA again in 1951, added another Masters in a five-win 1952 season and added a third Masters title in 1954. Snead was a gifted athlete who remained so limber that he could still kick the top of a door frame after his 70th birthday. His longevity was proven by his becoming the oldest player to ever win a PGA Tour event with his 1965 victory at the Greater Greensboro Open just short of his 53rd birthday. He is also the oldest player ever to make the cut at a major, earning that status at age 67 at the 1979 PGA Championship. For good measure in that 1979 season, he also became the first PGA Tour player to shoot his age in an event, when he posted a second-round 67 in the Quad Cities Open.
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5. Walter Hagen
Walter Hagen was a pivotal figure in the development of golf, as he as much as anyone is responsible for the concept of a touring professional.
In a tradition born with golf’s roots in the United Kingdom, professionals were seen as less worthy than the best amateurs, who carried the tag “gentlemen.” Pros weren’t allowed into locker rooms, and were treated like second-class citizens at many clubs. Hagen was famous for always bringing a dashing style to anything he did. On his first trip to play in the Open Championship in 1920, “Sir Walter,” as he came to be known, hired a chauffeur and a Pierce-Arrow luxury car that he parked in the club’s driveway at Deal, Kent, using it as his private dressing room. Although his origins were working-class and he came up through the caddie ranks to become a golfer, and as he found success Horatio Alger-style, he made golf fashionable to the masses and made himself into one of the world’s most famous sports figures. With sponsorship from the clubs where he worked, he became the first professional who made his living by traveling to tournaments to play.
And Walter Hagen could play. He ranks third on the list of most majors won, behind only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, with 11 titles. His five PGA Championships won ties him with Nicklaus for the most in that event’s history. He went to Great Britain, scoffed at their disdain for his status, and won the Open Championship four times between 1922-29, becoming the first American to take home the Claret Jug. As a 21-year-old who had only recently turned pro, he finished fourth in his the famous 1913 U.S. Open where Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, but claimed he was treated poorly by the other pros. This inspired Hagen to claim he would come back and win the title in 1914, and he did just that, making the national championship his first professional victory.
Hagen added a second U.S. Open title in 1919, and when the “Roaring ‘20s” arrived, it seemed like a decade made for Hagen. He won 36 titles between 1920-29, including five each in 1923 and ’24. His haul in 1924 included two of the three majors in existence at the time, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship. That was the first of four straight PGAs that featured Hagen’s name on the trophy, and once that streak was over, he added back-to-back Open Championship titles in 1928 and ’29.
He did compete in six Masters after the tournament’s founding in 1934, but with his best golf behind him, the best finish he mustered was a tie for 11th in 1936. Still, Hagen is recognized for his greatness on two fronts, both his skills and his influence on the game of golf. He finished in the top-10 at the U.S. Open 16 times, a number that fits snugly between Jack Nicklaus (17 top-10s) and Ben Hogan (15 top-10s). His career included 45 titles on the nascent PGA Tour that his popularity helped bring into existence, good for eighth-best overall, and he’s credited with 75 professional wins altogether.
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4. Bobby Jones
What Babe Ruth was to baseball, Bobby Jones was to golf. He was almost a mythical figure, a name that would forever be one of the very first people would associate with the game. It’s an unbelievable legacy for a playing career that lasted for only eight years.
Jones, as almost every golf fan knowns, was the man who would not go pro. He played as an amateur, working professionally as a lawyer in his hometown of Atlanta. He won his first U.S. Open at age 21 in 1923. He qualified for his first U.S. Open in 1920, and played his first two rounds with the then-50-year-old Harry Vardon. He retired from competitive golf shortly after winning his fifth U.S. Amateur in September of 1930. With Jones being an amateur and the concept of golf’s Grand Slam still being defined, the four majors that Jones could compete for in any year were the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. Before he ended his career, he would collect 13 of those major titles.
Along the way, Jones became not only one of the best-known athletes of the 1920s, he was one of the best-known public figures. Over the course of his career, even with the great pro Walter Hagen looming, it was clear there was no better golfer in the world than Jones. Jones won his first two U.S. Amateur titles in 1924 and ’25.
Also in 1925, he lost the U.S. Open title because of his own strict adherence to the rules. Playing with Hagen in the first round, Jones ran his club through the rough on the 11th hole and he believed he saw a slight movement of the ball. He informed Hagen as the hole ended that he was calling a one-shot penalty on himself. Hagen argued it was not necessary, and later, USGA rules officials agreed there was no penalty, but Jones was not to be dissuaded. His round of 76 became a 77, and when the tournament ended, he found himself tied for the lead at 7-over par with Scotsman Willie Macfarlane. Jones and Macfarlane returned the next day for an 18-hole playoff, but Jones birdied the 17th hole to draw even with Macfarlane and they once again finish tied. By the rules in place at the time, another 18 holes were necessary to settle the title in the afternoon, and this time, Macfarlane edged Jones by a single shot when Jones hit into a bunker and made bogey on the final hole.
The next year, it was Jones’ turn to collect another U.S. Open, winning the 1926 title by a single shot at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. He then did something only once before accomplished, adding the Open Championship in the same season at Royal Lytham in his first attempt at claiming the Claret Jug. Jones finished as runner-up that summer in the U.S. Amateur and then played the British Amateur for the first time in his career, advancing to the quarterfinals before being eliminated.
In 1927, he repeated as the Open Champion, thrilling the golf purists in Scotland by winning at St. Andrews by a whopping six-stroke margin. Jones was 7-under par, and only one other player managed to break par. He also added his third U.S. Amateur title that summer.
Jones finished second for the fourth time in his career at the 1928 U.S. Open, once again having to go to a playoff, where he lost to Johnny Farrell by one shot in a 36-hole playoff. He rebounded to win yet another U.S. Amateur later in the summer. Jones won only one title in 1929, but it was a big one, as he claimed his third U.S. Open Championship at the always demanding Winged Foot, once again in playoff fashion. Jones appeared to be cruising to victory when he reached No. 15 in the final round with a four-shot lead. Even Jones proved mortal that day, posting a triple-bogey at 15 and a bogey at 16 to suddenly slip back into a tie, and he had to scramble to get to the playoff by blasting out of a bunker on 18 and sinking a 12-foot putt to save par. Another 36-hole playoff awaited, but this time it was no contest, as Jones finished the playoff at 3-under par, 23 shots ahead of the struggling Al Espinosa. At that point, Jones had already accumulated nine major titles in his career.
Then came 1930, the year Jones would become the only man to win a full Grand Slam in a single calendar year. Jones first headed to Great Britain in the spring to captain the U.S. team in the Walker Cup. After leading his side to victory at Royal St. George’s, the first leg of the Grand Slam, the British Amateur was next, and it was being played at St. Andrews, where Jones had won the Open Championship so convincingly in his last trip to the British Isles in 1927. Jones had two close matches, but in the 36-hole finals, he ran away and hid from Roger Wethered, winning 7 and 6. A few weeks later, it was time for the 1930 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. Jones came from a shot back after 54 holes to outlast Leo Diegel and Macdonald Smith by two shots, giving him his third Open title in a row.
The U.S. Open was the next obstacle for Jones to clear, and if the pressure wasn’t enough itself to bear, the challenge was made even greater by extreme heat, as high as 108 degrees in the first round, for a championship being contested at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota. As defending champ, Jones was seeking to join Willie Anderson as the only four-time U.S. Open winner. He fended off the field and the heat, capping his championship with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win by two shots. Now the unthinkable was a possibility, with only the U.S. Amateur left to claim. Playing at Merion, public interest in Jones’ quest was huge, and he didn’t disappoint. If it was going to be his swan song, he went out in style, with no match making it past the 14th hole. The 36-hole final saw Jones take down Eugene Homans, 8 and 7, in front of an estimated gallery of 18,000 fans.
Later that fall, he sent a letter to the USGA announcing his retirement, at age 28, from competitive golf. What Jones had in mind next, though, was perhaps the greatest of all parts of his legacy. He went to work in helping to create Augusta National Golf Club where, in 1934, they staged the first Masters. Jones played in that first event, the only time he ever competed for the Masters title, and finished tied for 13th.
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3. Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan wasn’t just a champion, he was a legend. Certainly one of the greatest performers the game has ever seen, he is just as well known for his work ethic and the ability to overcome a car crash that nearly claimed his life – a crash he bounced back from to win one of the greatest U.S. Open victories in history just 16 months later. He would record six of his nine major titles after the devastating accident, which left him with lifelong health issues.
Hogan’s life was rarely joyous, and he had a quiet, introverted nature (that many speculate was influenced by his father’s suicide when Ben was nine) that made him difficult for fans to identify with. Coming out of the same caddie yard in Fort Worth, Texas, as Byron Nelson, Hogan’s journey to the top was as rough as Nelson’s seemed smooth. Hogan was not yet 18 when he turned pro, and he struggled to reign in and control his natural hook for a decade before finally winning his first individual title on the PGA Tour a decade later in 1940. He showed a glimpse of what was to come by following up immediately with victories the next two weeks. Service in the U.S. Army Air Force interrupted his career for two years during World War II, but the post-service Hogan played like a different golfer. After struggling to avoid going broke through much of the 1930s, Hogan won five times in 1945 and then an astounding 13 times in 1946, second-most in tour history behind Nelson’s 18-win season the previous year. After seven wins in 1947, Hogan then posted the fourth-winningest season in tour history with 10 wins in 1948.
His first major came in 1946 when he won the PGA Championship at Portland Golf Club, and in his ’48 season, he added two more majors – another PGA and his first U.S. Open title at Riviera in Los Angeles, earning the course the nickname of “Hogan’s Alley,” as he had also won the Los Angeles Open two times in the previous 18 months at Riviera. Hogan won twice in California in January of 1949, his 52nd win since 1940, before the crash on Feb. 2, 1949. Driving with his wife Valerie in foggy conditions outside of Van Horn, Texas, Hogan’s car collided head-on with a Greyhound bus. His life was only saved because he leaned right to protect his wife in the passenger’s seat; he would have been killed otherwise, as the steering column went right through the back of his seat. Even though he survived, his injuries – including a double-fractured pelvis and circulation issues with blood clots that led to the tying off of his vena cava vein – left his doctors unsure he would ever walk again.
Hogan lived with near-constant pain, but he also refused to be deterred. He not only walked, he was back golfing on the PGA Tour a remarkable 11 months later and nearly won again in “Hogan’s Alley,” finishing tied with Sam Snead at the L.A. Open and losing an 18-hole playoff the following day. He had to limit his tournaments to save his strength, but when he did play, he was somehow even better than before. He won the 1950 U.S. Open, despite the fact the Open at that time still required the final 36 holes to be played in a single day. The most famous image of Hogan, his striking a 1-iron from 213 yards away into the 18th green at Merion, put him 40 feet from the pin on the Open’s 72nd hole, from where he made par to force a three-man playoff. His body then held up through a fourth-straight day of U.S. Open golf, with Hogan shooting a 1-under 69 to win. It was one of the greatest triumphs under adversity ever seen in any sport.
What was to follow may have been even more amazing. Hogan limited his play to five starts in 1951, but won three of them, including both the Masters and the U.S. Open. It was his first Masters win after two runner-up finishes in the 1940s, and more almost-flawless golf delivered it – Hogan trailed by one shot going into the final round, but shot a bogey-free 4-under 68, the best round of the day by three shots. Hogan’s U.S. Open title was his third straight in the years he was able to enter, having missed the 1949 Open while still recovering.
The U.S. Open is often thought of as the toughest test in golf, and perhaps the toughest golfer the game had ever seen dominated it, winning yet again in 1953 at Oakmont, whipping runner-up Sam Snead by six strokes. Hogan’s 1953 season stands alone in golf history – he’s the only player to have won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship in the same season. The Open Championship was at Carnoustie and was the one and only time that Hogan made the trip over, but he whipped the field by four shots and completed the career Grand Slam. Earlier at the Masters, he had crushed the previous tournament scoring record by five shots, finishing 14-under and winning by five. Any chance at a single-season Grand Slam was doomed by the calendar, as the PGA Championship overlapped with the Open Championship. But in the three majors he did play, Hogan won by a combined 15 shots at age 40! Of six tournaments entered that year by Hogan, he won five of them.
There is so much else that can be said about Hogan’s career. Hogan finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open 16 straight times – no one else has strung together more than seven. Despite not winning until he was 27, taking time out for the service and his terrible crash which limited his number of appearances, he still ranks fourth all-time in PGA Tour wins with 64. His swing mechanics that he worked so hard to perfect still guide golfers today.
The Hogan who emerged as the courageous champion won the hearts of fans everywhere. He earned a ticker-tape parade in New York when he returned from the Open Championship, and saw his story portrayed on the big screen in the movie, Follow the Sun: The Ben Hogan Story.
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2. Tiger Woods
Yes, that’s the No. 2 next to Tiger Woods’ name. It’s a number you rarely saw beside his name on a leaderboard from 1999 through 2002, when he went on the longest extended run of dominant golf in PGA Tour history. Before the world’s eyes, he went from being a lanky amateur to becoming a golfing machine, seemingly superior to his peers in virtually every phase of the game.
It’s impossible to fully quantify the effect that Woods’ presence has had on modern golf. One perspective you could choose is that Nicklaus, with his 73 career PGA Tour victories, 18 majors and 286 top-10 finishes, collected $5,734,322 in career earnings. After purses ballooned because of the “Tiger effect,” the tour’s money list for 2019 events (last full season that didn’t have a global pandemic) shows that the top four players in earnings last year surpassed Nicklaus’ career mark. (Another four topped the $5 million mark.)
You can actually make a case that Tiger’s rank should be 1a, for several reasons. There’s the fact that in 200 fewer PGA Tour starts than Nicklaus made in his career, Tiger has won 82 times, tied for most in tour history, compared to Nicklaus’ 73 wins. You had the “Tiger Slam,” unprecedented in golf, when Woods held all four of the modern Grand Slam titles at one time, winning the 2000 U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship, and then the 2001 Masters. Nicklaus came close to a similar feat, winning the 1971 PGA Championship and then the 1972 Masters and U.S. Open before finishing second at that year’s Open Championship. But for all his contending in majors, Nicklaus never won more than two in a single year, something he did five times. Tiger had three majors in 2000, and had three more years where he won two majors. He’s also the only player in history to have won multiple professional majors two years in a row.
Nicklaus was Woods’ idol growing up, because of the record of excellence that he put together. But there are other singular things that can only be said of Tiger. Woods has the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history. He has the highest winning percentage, having won 23.1 percent of his PGA Tour starts. Even factored for inflation, he’s also won more career money than any player in tour history. He was the youngest to complete the career Grand Slam. He had the best statistical season in history during 2000, averaging 67.79 strokes per round. Tiger holds the career records for most PGA Player of the Year awards, with 11, most times leading the yearly money list, at 10, and most times winning the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average on tour, at nine. Finally, one of the most awesome if under-recognized indicators of his greatness is setting the PGA Tour record for most cuts in a row made at 142 straight. It’s basically a statement that from 1998 through 2003, he didn’t hit a slump even one week. The record prior to Tiger’s run was 113 straight cuts made by Byron Nelson. Nelson set the PGA Tour record with 11 wins in a row in 1945, but Woods is second on that list, having won seven straight events he entered over a span in 2006-07.
Then there are the singular moments. When Tiger won his first major, the Masters, in 1997, he did it in stunning fashion, setting a new scoring record at 18-under par and winning by a Masters record margin of 12 shots. When he began his Tiger Slam at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he was in uncharted territory – he finished at 12-under par on a course where no one else could even match par, and he set a record for all majors with a 15-shot margin of victory. When he went to St. Andrews the next month for the Open Championship, it was again a scorched-earth performance, as he won by eight shots. The final major of 2000, the PGA at Valhalla, saw upstart Bob May have the week of his life, matching Woods at 18-under par, but then Tiger pulling off one of the most thrilling sudden-death playoff wins in majors history. The 2008 U.S. Open at one of his favorite courses, Torrey Pines, saw Woods win despite playing on what was reportedly a fractured leg, having the wherewithal to do so even though he had to go to an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate.
For all of Tiger’s accomplishments, his performance at Augusta in 2019 may go down as his most iconic moment. A question mark to even compete in the tournament after a slew of back injuries, the “Tiger effect” was on full display as he claimed his fifth green jacket and his 15th major. After golf fans watched the scrawny kid be congratulated by his parents at the 18th green in countless tournaments throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was a surreal moment to see the 43-year-old father celebrate the victory with his two children.
Sadly though, the adversity hasn’t ended there. Just when it seemed as if Tiger would be a regular on Tour again, a scary car accident now leaves Woods’ future golf career in serious jeopardy. Regardless of whether he ever competes again, it’s more than fair to list Tiger as 1A on this list.
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1. Jack Nicklaus
He’s the greatest majors competitor of all-time, when results and longevity are combined. That’s the reason Jack Nicklaus is considered the best to have ever played the game.
From his first PGA Tour win as an amateur, the 1962 U.S. Open, to his final victory as the oldest to win a major, when he won the 1986 Masters title at age 46, Jack Nicklaus was just relentless. Few have ever shown the focus he had on winning for short periods of time, let alone for a career that brought home 73 PGA Tour victories.
In the 1960s, he was the spoiler. Arnold Palmer had become America’s favorite sports star, and it was Nicklaus that stole the spotlight from Palmer. Playing the 1963 Masters for the first time as a pro, Nicklaus won it, edging Tony Lema by a stroke. It was the first of his record six titles at Augusta. He added the PGA Championship later that same season. By the time the 1960s ended, Nicklaus already had seven majors to his name. But he also had seven second-place finishes in majors, so he knew he could do better.
The 1970s saw Nicklaus put together a competitive record like no one had ever seen over a single decade. He played every one of the 40 major championships during the decade, and 35 times, he finished in the top-10. Included were eight more major titles, including the streak of three in a row at the 1971 PGA and the 1972 Masters and U.S. Open. As if Nicklaus needed an encore after all that, the 1980s saw him soften in the public eye to become the sentimental favorite. His 1980 season was one of the greatest of his career, as he won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, setting a new tournament scoring record in the process, and he added the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, winning by a seven-shot margin for his fifth PGA title.
He would win just two more events before that fateful Sunday in 1986 at Augusta National. Nicklaus was well back, tied for ninth place behind third-round leader Greg Norman, but he was only four shots back on the scoreboard. Five different players would hold the lead in the final round, but steadily, the dominoes started to fall in Nicklaus’ direction. Nicklaus birdied three straight holes, Nos. 9, 10 and 11, to start a stir in the crowd. Still well back, he discovered his old magic again starting at 15, where he hit his second shot to 12 feet and made the putt for eagle. Birdies at 16 and then 17 followed, leading to some of the loudest Augusta roars in tournament history. Nicklaus had shot 30 on the second nine and 65 overall, putting him at 9-under par, one shot ahead of runners-up Tom Kite and Norman. It was his sixth Masters, and no other player has won more than four.
Nicklaus and Woods are the only two players who have achieved the “Triple Slam,” meaning they have won each of the four majors at least three times. Nicklaus not only holds the record for most majors won, he also has more runner-up finishes with 19 and more top-five finishes than anyone else with 56. His 73 top-10 finishes in majors outdistances the second-place player in this category, Sam Snead, by 25 events.
Golf has produced many great champions and many great moments. But within the last 50 years, golf fans have been particularly privileged to watch the two greatest players of all-time produce golfing magic time after time after time.
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