Golf Editorial

20121227 Ranking the Greatest Male Golfers

Introductory Comments

Greatness is a subjective term and is thus not determined solely by tournament or Major wins. If it were determined in that simplistic a manner, there would be very little room for the arguments and debate we all love!


I believe golf greatness among players should be measured by the totality of their on-course careers. This includes their results, demeanour, interaction with spectators & media and overall impact on the game of golf.

Off-course deeds in such peripheral areas as: course design, administration, nailing a smorgasbord of call-girls, broadcasting or charitable fund-raising were thus not canvassed for this article.

Examining different eras is always challenging, and especially so with golf, which has been played competitively since at least the 15th century in Scotland.

However, for the purposes of this article I’ve only considered, with apologies to Harry Vardon, the Tom Morris’s and a few other notables, golfers active after World War 1.

Rightly or not, I consider modern, competitive, professional, international golf to have had its genesis in the Hagen, Jones, Sarazen era of the 1920’s.

The Majors: How Important are they?

Sometimes these days I think we over-emphasise the importance of the four Major tournaments, but one can’t deny that for at least the past 50 years, and the emergence of Arnie with his stated goal of winning ‘the big four’ (he didn’t), they have been the key competitive events; the place where the men were sorted out from the boys.

In recent times, wonderful exponents of golf such as: Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Nick Watney, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia & Steve Stricker have all thrilled us in the course of racking up scores of tournament victories.

But they don’t have a single Major to show for it between the lot of them!

When the going got toughest, at least up to now in their careers, they couldn’t win a big one. In my opinion, that precludes any of them, and all golfers from the past who also could not win at least 2-3 Majors, from consideration for my list of the ‘Top10 Greatest Golfers of all Time’.

To get started, and for some Major context, here is a tabulation of the winningest golfers in Majors since 1918, listed in order of their number of Major wins. The Top20 have all won 4 or more, which is my cut-off point here:

Rank Name Nation Majors Span Masters USOpen British PGA
1 Jack Nicklaus USA 18 1962–1986 6 4 3 5
2 Tiger Woods USA 14 1997–2008 4 3 3 4
3 Walter Hagen USA 11 1914–1929 0 2 4 5
4 Gary Player South Africa 9 1959–1978 3 1 3 2
4 Ben Hogan USA 9 1946–1953 2 4 1 2
6 Tom Watson USA 8 1975–1983 2 1 5 0
7 Arnold Palmer USA 7 1958–1964 4 1 2 0
7 Sam Snead USA 7 1942–1954 3 0 1 3
7 Gene Sarazen USA 7 1922–1935 1 2 1 3
7 Bobby Jones USA 7 1923–1930 0 4 3 0
11 Nick Faldo England 6 1987–1996 3 0 3 0
11 Lee Trevino USA 6 1968–1984 0 2 2 2
13 Byron Nelson USA 5 1937–1945 2 1 0 2
13 Seve Ballesteros Spain 5 1979–1988 2 0 3 0
13 Peter Thomson Australia 5 1954–1965 0 0 5 0
16 Phil Mickelson USA 4 2004–2010 3 0 0 1
16 Ray Floyd USA 4 1969–1986 1 1 0 2
16 Ernie Els South Africa 4 1994–2012 0 2 2 0
16 Jim Barnes England 4 1916–1925 0 1 1 2
16 Bobby Locke South Africa 4 1949–1957 0 0 4 0

Who Have Been The Greatest Players in Majors?

As one can see, Nicklaus, Woods, Hagen, Player & Hogan were dominant Major winners of their eras while Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Tom Watson, Gene Sarazen, & Arnold Palmer are all honourable mentions in this context.

Commentaries on the Greatest Winners

Here are some pen portraits, stats and points of interest on most of the greatest winners in golf, in no particular order:

Gary Player

Gary Player (The Black Knight), despite being somewhat overshadowed by Palmer & Nicklaus during various stages of his career, nonetheless still managed to win 9 Majors and is one of just five players to have won all 4, the other career Grand Slammers being: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen & Ben Hogan. Exclusive company indeed!

Was Player better than Tom Watson or Tiger Woods both of whom, one might argue, had less quality competition than Player?

Gary Player, in a long career, won 165 golf tournaments, in all corners of the planet. Not even Sam Snead won more!

Has anybody ever been a better global ambassador for the game of golf? Nicklaus, perhaps?

Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones, was both a lawyer and an amateur in a new era of hardened professionals such as Hagen & Sarazen! How do we assess him?

Plagued by physical issues and under the weight of Georgian (especially) and national expectation from the time he made the 3rd round of the US Amateur at age 14 in 1916, he couldn’t pull off a big one until 1923.

But what followed added up to competing in 31x‘Majors’ that yielded 27xTop10’s, 13xvictories and then, suddenly, retirement in 1930 at the age of just 28!

Even if we’re just talking today’s Majors, Jones won 7 of them during this brief period. (His 13 wins included 5xUS Amateurs & a British Amateur).

And then his other great legacy to the game, Augusta National and The Masters – first played in 1934.

Note: Majors in Jones’s era included the US & British Amateur championships. There was no Masters as yet, and he was not eligible to play in the PGA Championship. Also, other events such as the Western Amateur had equally high status; See comments under Walter Hagen below.

Greg Norman

Greg Norman won 88 tournaments all over the world, including a lifetime membership-earning 20 on the PGA Tour, despite not joining until 1984 when he was almost 30. He might be an automatic all-time Top10 but for throwing away, or having stolen from him, at least 8 Majors! In 1986, he actually led all 4 Majors on Saturday but won only one of them. His failure to convert so many opportunities into wins rules him out of consideration for my Top10.

Greg Norman is, in my opinion, the greatest underachiever in the history of golf. I want to use a bit of space here to explain how close he came to true greatness.

Firstly, he’s one of only two players in the history of golf to have lost a playoff in all 4 Majors! And that’s only one chapter in a book of woes!

Who can forget his US Open tie, with Fuzzy Zoeller waving a white handkerchief, followed by a playoff loss to Fuzz?

What about him missing the green with his approach on the 72nd hole to gift Jack Nicklaus the ’86 Masters!

Larry Mize’s 50-yard chip-in for eagle to beat Norman in the ’87 Masters playoff was daylight robbery and a genuine heartbreaker.

Bob Tway holed out from a 72nd hole bunker to relegate Norman to 2nd in the 1986 PGA. They were tied after 71 holes, with Norman having leaked 4 shots to Tway on Sunday, and Norman’s ball was lying 25 feet from the pin in the fringe. He then had to chip in to force a playoff; he couldn’t.

And on it goes! Who’ll ever forget Nick Faldo simply psyching Greg out at Augusta via an 11-shot turnaround between them on Sunday, 67:78!

Norman narrowly failing with his par putt on the 72nd hole to miss out on the ’89 Masters playoff!

He lipped out a 72nd hole putt to win the ’93 PGA, then lost the playoff to Paul Azinger!

I vividly recall watching Corey Pavin at Pebble ease by Norman on Sunday afternoon in the ’95 US Open.

Enough; I’m starting to cry!

Sam Snead

Sam Snead was the most enduring and prolific (along with Player) winner in a 5-decade career that included 165 victories, a record 82 of them on the PGA Tour!

His 7 Majors, despite the interruption of military service in WW2, lacked only a US Open win where he was 4 times a runner-up!

Sam even won an LPGA tournament! Go figure that out!

In 1950, Sam won 11 tournaments on the PGA Tour, a feat only ever bettered by Byron Nelson (18 in 1945) & Ben Hogan (13 in 1946) and these latter two achievements need to be read in the context of a war-ravaged PGA Tour player list.

Ernie Els

Ernie Els, a golfing nomad like his countryman Gary Player, has already won 65 tournaments around the world, including 4 Majors and, in my opinion, ranks alongside Greg Norman, Billy Casper, Nick Price, Vijay Singh, Tom Weiskopf & Phil Mickelson all-time. Below the elite level, but close.

Ernie returns this year to Muirfield, the scene of his Open Championship win in 2002, so yet another Els Major chapter could be written there in 2013!

Lee Trevino

Lee Trevino was a champion, against the odds of his lack of height, his homemade swing and his deprived childhood. He never knew his father and was forced to mix school with working in cotton fields & shining shoes from the age of 5.

Yet he won 6xMajors, and won them playing in the: Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, Floyd era!

Just ask fantastic players such as Tom Weiskopf (1), Raymond Floyd (4) or (Dave Stockton (2) how difficult it was to win Majors in the 1960’s and 70’s!

After a 4-year stint in the Marines, and many years as a club pro, Trevino didn’t even start on the PGA Tour until 1967 when he was aged 27! He went on to win 29 PGA tournaments and another 29 on the Champions Tour among 89 professional titles.

Top10 contender?  A definite maybe.

Gene Sarazen

Gene Sarazen (The Squire), as mentioned earlier, is one of only five men to have won a career grand slam. He won 43 tournaments during the more limited schedule of the 1920’s & 30’s and, interestingly, invented the sand wedge!

Despite being just 5’5” (1.66m) tall, Sarazen is one of only 4 players to score an albatross at Augusta. He is also one of those rare players (Payne Stewart springs to mind) who wore plus-fours throughout his career.

Top10 material? Perhaps an outsider if we were betting on it. Top20? Definitely.

Ben Hogan

Ben Hogan (The Hawk) is arguably the greatest pure ball-striker who ever lived. I can’t argue with my grandfather; the devil rest his soul! The fact that the fabulous Riviera & Colonial Country Club courses, where he enjoyed such success, became known as ‘Hogan’s Alley’ bears testimony to his ball striking ability.

Tied 4th for all-time Major wins (9), including a career grand slam, Hogan had 68xcareer wins with 64 of them on the toughest (PGA) Tour despite a career interrupted by the 2nd World War and a vehicle accident in 1949; head-on with a Greyhound bus! that broke his pelvis in 2 places, collar bone, ankle and a rib and left doctors questioning whether he’d ever walk again, never mind play golf!

Famously, he returned to the PGA Tour in 1950, then aged 37, and literally limped on to complete, in 1953, his career grand slam, and that was after passing age 40!

In that same year, 1953, he became the first player to win 3 professional Majors in a year; I believe only Tiger Woods has done so since.

Incidentally, 1953 was the only year Hogan ever played the Open Championship. At Carnoustie, perhaps then the toughest course in the world as it still is today, he battled the flu while shooting a course record final round 68 to win by 4 strokes! Tough? They don’t come any tougher than Hogan!

A Top10 contender? No, Hogan’s a Top10 lock!

Severiano Ballesteros

Seve Ballesteros won golf tournaments, and especially Majors, as well as fans in a swashbuckling and vibrant manner like almost no other golfer in history. His touch around the greens was legendary, his nerves steely and his fiercely competitive nature sometimes made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature!

Just ask Nick Price, who tried valiantly to hold off Seve’s closing 65 in 1988 at Lytham, or talk to a couple of his vanquished Ryder Cup opponents.

Seve won 91 tournaments in all, including the record of 50 on the European Tour, and he won 5xMajors. In addition, he was the mainstay of European Ryder Cup teams for nearly two decades, winning an unprecedented (for Europe) four Cups and proudly captaining Europe to victory at home in Spain in 1997. Paired with Olazabal, he won 11 and halved 2 of 15 matches in Ryder Cups!

Anyway, enough proselytising about Seve; off to some more data now, as an aide-memoire.

Who has won at least 20 tournaments on the PGA Tour? They’re listed below (as at December 2012) with those still active marked with an asterisk:

Sam Snead – 82

*Tiger Woods – 74

Jack Nicklaus – 73

Ben Hogan – 64

Arnold Palmer – 62

Byron Nelson – 52

Billy Casper – 51

Walter Hagen – 45

*Phil Mickelson – 40

Cary Middlecoff – 40

Gene Sarazen – 39

Tom Watson – 39

Lloyd Mangrum – 36

*Vijay Singh – 34

Horton Smith – 32

Harry Cooper – 31

Jimmy Demaret – 31

Leo Diegel – 30

Gene Littler – 29

Paul Runyan – 29

Lee Trevino – 29

Henry Picard – 26

Tommy Armour – 25

Johnny Miller – 25

Gary Player – 24

Macdonald Smith – 24

Johnny Farrell – 22

Raymond Floyd – 22

Jim Barnes – 21

Willie Macfarlane – 21

Lanny Wadkins – 21

Craig Wood – 21

Hale Irwin – 20

*Davis Love III – 20

Bill Mehlhorn – 20

Greg Norman – 20

Doug Sanders – 20

And who has won at least 20 times on the European Tour?

Seve Ballesteros – 50

Bernhard Langer – 42

*Tiger Woods – 38

*Colin Montgomerie – 31

Nick Faldo – 30

Ian Woosnam – 29

*Ernie Els – 27

*José María Olazábal – 23

*Lee Westwood – 22

Sam Torrance – 21

In case anybody was wondering, the Mechanic, Miguel Angel Jimenez, sits on 19 wins. Also, bear in mind that Major & WGC wins count on both Tours – which is ridiculous.

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo’s name crops up here. Faldo had just 40xwins in his career but those included 6xMajors, more than any of his European Tour contemporaries such as: Langer, Norman, Ballesteros or Monty.

He won his Majors wearing a Hogan-like steely glare of concentration and his Major success is made especially significant after, earlier in his career, being nicknamed Nick Foldo by the British tabloid scum after collapses in the ’83 Open & ’84 Masters.

He also owns the most successful Ryder Cup record, among all players including Americans, and that’s not solely attributable to longevity!

In determining an all-time Top10, should I also consider golfers’ performances on senior tours after their regular careers are over? Once players attain age 50 these days, the Seniors tours beckon with the smell of easy money not available to earlier generations. Some mostly resist it, most notably perhaps Watson & Norman who both nearly won Open Championships in their 50’s!

So here’s a quick look at the winners of 20 or more tournaments on the Champions Tour, the pinnacle of the senior game. Perhaps there’s somebody here who’s been ‘hiding’ thus far:

Hale Irwin – 45

Lee Trevino – 29

Gil Morgan – 25

Miller Barber – 24

Bob Charles – 23 (68 wins overall)

Don January – 22

Chi-Chi Rodríguez – 22

Jim Colbert – 20

Bruce Crampton – 20

Quite a few Major winners there: Irwin, Trevino, January & Charles.

Hale Irwin

After Trevino, the best of these is Hale Irwin who had 20 PGA wins including a rare 3xUS Opens. He’s also won 7, far less prestigious, Senior Majors among his 87 professional wins to date. I say ‘to date’ because he finished 3rd in the Senior PGA recently at age 66 so he could still win again!

Irwin also played on 5 Ryder Cups and was on the winning side every time – but so were a bunch of americans over many dominant decades. We only rate the underdog performances in Ryder Cups!

Does Hale Irwin challenge for a Top10 ranking all-time? Not quite. Sorry, Hale!

OK, back to some pen portraits of players more worthy of a high ranking in the history of golf:

Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus (The Golden Bear) is indisputably one of the two greatest golfers of all time. Longevity helped, as not many golfers can boast playing in 154 consecutive Majors for which they were eligible! Has anybody ever even been eligible for 154 of them? Consecutively? I doubt it!

Jack not only holds the record for most Major wins (18) but also managed a lazy 19 second places in Majors! To understand how good that is, note that Arnold Palmer is second all-time for runners-up in Majors with nine!

I contend this is further proof, if any were required, that Jack’s era was one of the toughest in which to win the Big Ones; he wasn’t a choker yet got beaten when in contention as many times as he won! He also notched up nine 3rd placings in Majors.

Nicklaus won 73 PGA tournaments (3rd all-time) among a total of 115 worldwide wins and won the PGA Tour money list 8 times. For context, Tiger has won 9 money list titles, so far, and nobody else in history won more than 5 (Watson & Hogan).

Jack also won the US Amateur in 1959 & 1961 and finished 2nd in the US Open in 1960 as an amateur! ‘Nuff said; he’s #1 or #2.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods only turns 37 on 30Dec12 and who knows what he will achieve in the future? Nonetheless, I can only measure the past and it’s rather impressive. Actually, it’s downright incredible!

Here is a child prodigy who just went on with it! Tiger was first sighted swinging a golf club on global television when he was about two years old. At 8 he won the 9-10 (youngest) category in the Junior World Championships and went on to win 6 Junior World titles. He first broke 70 at age 12!

He won three consecutive US Junior championships (nobody has ever done that and surely nobody ever will) and then, the next 3 years, won three consecutive US Amateur Championships; also never done previously and also a feat likely never to be repeated.

So, here’s a world beater who by the time of that 3rd US Amateur was aged just 20 and still at Stanford University. Then he left school in 1996 and turned pro – and promptly earned enough from Nike, Titleist and other sponsorships to secure his and his family’s future for 2 generations. Nice gig!

Here are some of his career highlights since that time:

101 professional wins, incl. 74 (2nd only to Snead) on the PGA Tour!

38 European Tour wins (5th all-time) without ever seriously playing in Europe. Note: some titles count on both Tours these days: Majors, WGC’s.

Tiger has won 14 Major titles, albeit none since 2008, and been six times a runner-up. A much better ratio of wins to seconds than Nicklaus!

Woods is also one of that select club of just five golfers who are career grand slam winners and he was the youngest (24) to achieve it. Further, Tiger actually has three career grand slams! That’s winning each Major at least 3 times. Who else has achieved this? Jack Nicklaus is the only other.

The elite, limited field WGC events (4 per year) have only been around since 1999, yet Tiger has already won 16 of them! Who’s next best? Geoff Ogilvy with three! Yes, 3. ‘Nuff said; Tiger’s gotta be #1 or #2.

Tom Watson

Tom Watson is the ageless, smiling, gentleman of the modern golfing era.

How can you not admire a guy born in 1949 who in 2009 goes down to the wire in a 4-hole playoff for the open Championship? This surely was the greatest pro golf performance by an old man, in history. Also, a tragedy! Remember he bogeyed the 72nd hole to fall into Cink’s grasp!

Tom is arguably one of the greatest links players of all time and not many of them have come out of Missouri! He’s won a total of 70 tournaments in a stellar career since 1971, including 8 Majors and 7 runner-ups; only the PGA Championship (10xTop10’s incl a 2nd!) is missing from his collection.

His 14 wins, off a limited schedule, on the Champions Tour include 6 Senior Majors.

Byron Nelson

Byron Nelson (Lord Byron) only played pro golf until he retired at the young age of 34 to become a rancher! He almost died aged 11 from the typhoid fever which left him unable to sire children.

Being a contemporary of Hogan & Snead can’t have made his golfing career any easier! Nonetheless, he was an adornment to the game and was the first player to have a tournament named after him, at which he appeared in his unassuming & gentlemanly manner right up to his death at age 94.

As mentioned earlier, Nelson won an unbelievable 18 tournaments in 1945, a record likely to last past judgement day – even if diminished by lack of competition.

In all, he won 64 times in that too-brief 14yr career, including 5 Majors. Only the Open Championship is absent from his trophy cabinet; he played it just once, in 1937, and finished 5th.

Walter Hagen

My favourite golfer of all time, albeit based solely on reading and anecdotes, is Walter Charles Hagen (aka Sir Walter or The Haig).

Hagen was the first American to win the Open Championship, which he did in 1922; he went on to win it 4 times in all among a collection of 11 Majors (3rd behind only Nicklaus & Woods) and was, significantly, 2nd only three times.

Bear in mind, too, that Hagen won the Western amateur 5 times, an event ranking behind only the US & British Opens in status in those days!

In all, Hagen won 75 tournaments, a staggering number at the time (he was born in 1892). He was also the number one ground-breaker in earning respect for professionals in a golf world then dominated by a stuffy British amateur establishment ambience.

Just as in having the temerity to cross  the ditch and win the Open Championship, he was to become a trailblazer in many aspects of the golfing world.

For example, Hagen revolutionised the golf world of endorsements and exhibition tours, making hundreds of (lucrative for him) exhibition tours and helping to popularise the game in the USA while pocketing more money than he could ever have earned from tournament play!

That money supported a lavish lifestyle that featured expensive and showy attire, several ex-wives, the best alcohol and food money could buy, chauffeured limousines with liveried drivers; perhaps a lifestyle for the ages.

Hagen was the first professional to tour without any Club affiliation (a huge deal in those times!) and once, magnificently, at the 1920 British Open hired a luxury car as a dressing room and parked it in front of the clubhouse as a protest at being denied entry owing to his professional status!

He once said, “I never wanted to be a millionaire, just to live like one!”

Gene Sarazen once said, “All the professionals … should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers. It was Walter who made professional golf what it is.”

Probably only Arnold Palmer & Tiger Woods have had a comparable historical impact on tournament prize money!.

You’ve just gotta love The Haig; he got it done on and off the course!

My Rankings – Top Ten Golfers of All Time (well, since 1918 anyway)

  1. Jack Nicklaus
  2. Tiger Woods
  3. Walter Hagen
  4. Ben Hogan
  5. Bobby Jones
  6. Gary Player
  7. Tom Watson
  8. Arnold Palmer
  9. Sam Snead
  10. Lee Trevino

Just missed out: Gene Sarazen, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros & Byron Nelson.

Cheers, and good luck with your golf betting in 2013, Mike.

Copyright MJ Miller (Mike) 27 December 2012