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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