Ah, the oft-debated question: Is it possible to compare great golfers from different eras? Typically the answer is no; all that can be said is that a given titan was the best of his/her generation. But heck, that’s no fun, and doesn’t stimulate any dissension or discussion. So we’ve taken the bold and brazen path and hereby present LINKS Magazine’s unabashed rankings of the game’s best players. Having said that, we’ve also copped out a bit. Our list of 25 players is actually three separate lists—the top 15 American men, the top five international men, and the top five women. And whereas our rankings of the American men are based broadly on a performance point system—one point for each victory, two for each major championship—all three lists take into account other factors such as longevity, singular achievements, and overall contributions to the game.
1 Jack Nicklaus Before Tiger, Jack was a slam dunk for number one; now it’s a virtual toss-up, with Woods climbing closer each year. On sheer performance points as of this writing, it’s 109 for Jack (73 wins, 18 majors) to 107 for Tiger (79 and 14). But that 18-to-14 lead—plus his astonishing 19 second-place finishes in the majors—gives Jack the top spot…for now.
2 Tiger Woods Okay, let’s say he has another few years in him similar to 2013—he wins several times, but no major titles—and when the year 2020 dawns, he’s still stuck on 14 majors, but he now has over 100 Tour victories, 20 more than anyone else. Would that make him the greatest ever? You bet it would (and don’t think that 100 isn’t very much on Tiger’s mind).
3 Bobby Jones No one was better at winning championships than Jones, who won 42 percent of the U.S. and British Amateurs and Opens he entered. (Nicklaus won a mere 10 percent of the modern majors he played.) In one eight-year period, Jones finished either first or second in 17 of 21 championships. If he hadn’t retired at age 28—and at the peak of his form—who knows what he might have accomplished. But he did, so he will never rank higher than third.
4 Sam Snead Here is another close contest—Hogan versus Snead—and if you’re an ardent fan of one or the other, that pretty well decides it. Granted, Hogan had guts and determination, but the one with raw talent was Snead, and his 82 wins—spanning 30 years with the last of them at age 52—remain the gold standard of sustained golf excellence.
5 Ben Hogan Roundly agreed to be the finest ball-striker the game has ever seen, he pursued perfection as no golfer before him ever had, and was the fiercest competitor of his or any other era. Not even a near-fatal auto accident could derail him, and he managed to do four times what Snead repeatedly failed to do—win the U.S. Open.
6 Walter Hagen Only Jones, Woods, and Nicklaus have more majors and The Haig won five of his—including a record four in a row—when the PGA was contested at match play, generally regarded as the far tougher way to win. He was also the first American professional golfer to be a bona fide star.
7 Arnold Palmer Yes, he won 62 events including seven majors, but there is much more to Arnie’s career. With his charismatic smile and go-for-broke style, he invigorated modern golf, and in 1960 he single-handedly rescued the British Open by inventing the modern Grand Slam. Six others have achieved more, but no player has done more for the game.
8 Byron Nelson His legacy both benefits and suffers from that mind-boggling 1945 season: benefits in that what he did (18 victories, 11 in a row) will never be approached; suffers from those who argue his wins came over weak fields during the war years. Nonetheless, he was one of the game’s most dominant players and unquestionably its finest gentleman.
9 Gene Sarazen The first player to win the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA and still one of only five to do it, Eugenio Saraceni rose from the caddie ranks to the top of the game. In addition to his 38 victories, seven in majors, his holed-out 4-wood for double eagle in the ’35 Masters is regarded as the best golf shot in history—and in his spare time he invented the sand wedge.
10 Tom Watson Arguably the best links golfer of all time and one of the toughest competitors, he (along with Lee Trevino) gave Nicklaus his toughest battles, notably the 1977 British Open at Turnberry and the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. And let us not forget his performance at Turnberry four years ago when at the age of 59 he nearly won a sixth British Open title.
11 Phil Mickelson When he won the Claret Jug this July, Mickelson vaulted into an elite group of players who have won three of the big four titles. With six runner-ups in the one he’s missing (the U.S. Open), he is now the guy who has come closest to joining the ranks of Sarazen, Nicklaus, Player, Hogan, and Woods—and he may still do it.
12 Billy Casper He’s said to be the most underrated player in history, and that may be true. Fifty-one victories including two U.S. Opens and a Masters, plus eight Ryder Cups and five Vardon Trophies attest to his skill. A general lack of flair in both his personality and his playing style may have held him back, as might the fact that he’s the guy who stole the U.S. Open from Arnie at Olympic. But we think we’ve done Billy justice with a ranking of 12th.
13 Lee Trevino Surely no one has ever accused the Merry Mex of lacking flair. But the truth is, it’s his game that made most of the noise and headlines. Although his 29 Tour wins don’t rank with others on this list, he matched that number on the Senior Tour and he’s one of only four players to have won the U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA twice each. In 1971, he won the U.S., British, and Canadian Opens, all in a span of 20 days.
14 Cary Middlecoff In the decade or so between the Hogan/Nelson/Snead era and the heyday of Palmer and Nicklaus, no one played better than the lanky man from Memphis, with 40 victories including two U.S. Opens and a Masters and three seasons in which he won six times. Not bad for a guy who started out as a dentist.
15 Ray Floyd Since 1970, only seven players have managed to win three different major championships—Woods and Nicklaus (with all four), Mickelson, Watson, Trevino, Player, and Floyd. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Floyd is the game’s only player with PGA Tour victories in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
1 Harry Vardon A century ago he was the game’s best player outside the U.S. and he remains so today. Vardon’s six victories in the British Open remain a record untouched, and in 1900 he came to the U.S. for the first time and won our Open, not returning until 1913 when he would have won it again if not for the emergence of Francis Ouimet. Besides, who else has both a trophy and a grip named after him?
2 Gary Player Golf’s number-one ambassador, most indefatigable traveler, and relentless fitness fanatic, Player lived in the shadow of Nicklaus and Palmer but also forged a glorious career of his own, with nine major titles (only Nicklaus, Woods, Jones, and Hagen have more) and more than 150 tournament victories around the world.
3 Seve Ballesteros His PGA Tour career—just nine wins—would not seem to suggest greatness, but two of those were Masters, three were British Opens, and on the European Tour, where he played most of his golf, Seve amassed an additional 50 titles, while becoming the player who launched a legion of great European golfers and sparked the revival of the Ryder Cup.
4 Nick Faldo Six majors—three each in the Masters and British Open—speak more eloquently than Faldo tended to during his playing career, but now, ironically, he is one of the game’s top TV broadcasters. Without question, he is the most accomplished English golfer since Vardon.
5 Greg Norman He will perhaps be remembered more for his agonizing losses—including the Saturday Slam (1986), when he led all four majors after 54 holes but won only the British Open—but Norman bridged the Nicklaus and Woods eras stylishly and was world number one a total of 331 weeks.
1 Annika Sorenstam As with the men, it’s a tough call between two players of different eras, Annika and Mickey Wright, who had similarly brief but brilliant careers and piled up comparable total victories and major titles. Wright, however, competed during the early days of the LPGA Tour, when the fields were smaller and weaker, while Sorenstam (72 LPGA wins, including 10 majors, plus 17 other titles) battled against formidable international competition. Plus, Mickey never shot a 59.
2 Mickey Wright It’s hard to argue with the raw numbers—82 wins and 13 majors, including four consecutive years when she won at least 10 times—and all but one before the age of 35. Wright was also blessed with what is arguably the nearest-to-perfect golf swing the game has ever seen.
3 Kathy Whitworth Until and unless Tiger tacks on a few more Ws, she remains the winningest golfer of all time with 88 victories. Whitworth won her first event in 1962, was the Tour’s leading money winner eight times, and over the course of her 24-year career averaged 3.7 victories a year, beating everyone from Patty Berg to Nancy Lopez.
4 Babe Zaharias The first bona fide star in women’s professional golf, The Babe combined athletic talent with showmanship to win dozens of tournaments and millions of fans. She didn’t take up the game until age 24, died of cancer at 45, but during her 16 years on Tour she amassed 41 victories, 10 of them major championships.
5 Patty Berg In one sense, she was the Nicklaus of ladies’ golf, with more majors—15—than anyone. In another, she was the LPGA’s Arnie, a gallery favorite with a common touch who won friends and represented the game with joy and dignity well after her playing years.
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