The Greatest Golfers of All TimePublished on 01/06/2023 · 13 min readGolf expert Adam Ditcher gives us a deep dive into the history of golf and explores the greatest golfers to ever play the game.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Golf is a game that has been played for centuries. Over the years, many people have taken up this great game. From the origins of the game to today, the best players in the world have played golf competitively on the professional circuit. The manner of how to maintain a career as a professional golfer has changed over time, but the resumes and accomplishments of the greatest golfers of all time transcend history, and their stories resonate with us even today.
Any fan who has played the game understands the difficulties that golf can present and knows that life outside of golf can also throw us curveballs over different decades of our lives. These top players overcame obstacles and created legacies that can only be described as legendary. With that introduction, let us dive into the history of golf and explore the greatest champions to ever play the game.
One of the largest measuring sticks for golfers and their resumes is the number of major championships—Masters, U.S. Open, British Open (Open Championship), and PGA Championship—they have won. These tournaments are hosted once per year, with champions aiming to defend their title and others aiming to receive an invitation to compete again the following year. The current record for most career major titles is 18, held by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus, who attended Ohio State University and is nicknamed Golden Bear, is a widely renowned golf legend for his career achievements and is a popular pick as the greatest golfer to ever play the game. In fact, his lifetime accomplishments have their own Wikipedia page!
Not only does he have the most majors ever, but he also has the most second-place finishes with a record 19 runner-up finishes to accompany his 18 wins. His name was a constant on the final day of whatever golf tournament he was playing in. Nicklaus also won 55 non-major tournaments over the course of his career, making him third-best of all time with 73 career wins overall. Nicklaus won the award for Golfer of the Century from Golf Magazine and Golf Digest for the 20th Century. He has also been the captain of the American Ryder Cup team multiple times.
Nicklaus has also given a great deal to golf after his playing days. He hosts the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village every year on the PGA Tour, where he greets the champion with the trophy on Sunday. He has become one of the most famous modern golf course designers and has designed courses all over America by launching Nicklaus Companies. He also helped to launch the Senior PGA Tour, now referred to as the Champions Tour or PGA Tour Champions. The magnitude of his impact on the game is monumental.
Of course, you can’t mention Nicklaus’ 18 majors without mentioning the man who has spent years trying to beat that record and currently sits in second place at 15 majors—Tiger Woods. Golf fans have watched Woods, who attended Stanford University, play some of the most impressive golf the world has ever seen. He was winning tournaments, including majors, by margins that were unheard of on the PGA Tour, even for his very first major win. Every time he teed up, he was a favorite. You couldn't look at a leaderboard and not see Woods' name; for the longest time, the latest news in golf was that Tiger had won another tournament.
Tiger Woods is the only player to hold all four modern major championships at once. He won in April of 2001 at the Masters after having won the U.S. Open Title, the British Open Title, and the PGA Championship—all in 2000. He was seemingly always climbing leaderboards throughout this period, and finding a bogey during his rounds in this era was rare.
Tiger also helped to bring the game of golf beyond the country club and expand the popularity of the sport like never before. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and his popularity allowed the game's viewership to provide additional money to purses via advertising dollars from major networks. Suddenly, the rights to the PGA Tour were more comparable to those of the NFL and MLB than they'd ever been before.
At 82 career PGA Tour victories, Tiger Woods is tied for the most career wins of all time, his most recent win being at the 2019 Masters Tournament. However, there have been many ups and downs for Woods and his golf game in the last 10 years or so, and injuries have taken their toll on his quest to overtake Nicklaus’ record. He has had to come back from a car crash, having developed leg injuries, and needing multiple back surgeries. As a now 46-year-old, will he do it? Time will tell. But even without it, he’s arguably another choice candidate for the greatest player to ever pick up a golf club.
In addition, Woods brought commercialization to golf and is largely attributed with leading the game’s ascension in recent decades through increased coverage, payouts at PGA Tour events, and sponsorship opportunities. Woods hosts the Genesis Invitational on tour, as well as the Hero World Challenge, an off-tour invite event that plays in December. His reach is beginning to span beyond just his play, but one thing is certain—golf fans love seeing Sunday red during the final round of major championships again.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that golf is a game that goes back a long time, and the PGA Tour hasn’t always been what it is today. Nicklaus and Woods are both outstanding golfers, but there are others who have some extremely impressive resumes. One that comes to mind is Bobby Jones, who is known as the greatest amateur golfer to ever live.
Jones is the only golfer to ever win the Grand Slam—winning all four major tournaments in one calendar year. In Bobby Jones’ case, the four major golf tournaments were the U.S. Open, the British Open, the U.S. Amateur, and the British Amateur. The Masters Tournament was founded by Jones and did not exist in 1930 when he won his single-year grand slam. Also, because he was not a golf professional, Jones did not have the ability to play in the PGA Championship. Jones not only won those tournaments, but he competed against and defeated some of the best golfers of all time, both professionals and amateurs. The closest anyone has come to matching this feat was when Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, and the 2001 Masters, holding all four trophies at once in the “Tiger Slam.”
The next stop on our journey is to explore players who have won the Career Grand Slam, meaning that they won the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and British Open, all within the course of their professional careers. Only three other players besides Woods and Nicklaus have ever accomplished the feat.
Gene Sarazen, who competed around the time of Bobby Jones, is one such player; he won seven major championships in his career. Despite winning every major, the one that may have been the most improbable was his win at the 1935 (second annual) Masters Tournament.
Sarazen was three shots behind the leader going into hole 15, a par-5 at Augusta National. He proceeded to hole out his second shot on the par-5 for an albatross, known as the “shot heard round the world.” After gaining three strokes on that one hole and tying the lead, Sarazen proceeded to finish with three straight pars after that and win the tournament in a playoff.
It is also said that Sarazen created the modern sand wedge and the technique that players use to hit out of greenside bunkers. A real pioneer of the game, Sarazen was the first player in history to capture the Career Grand Slam.
The next player to complete the Career Grand Slam, Ben Hogan, provided so much to the game of golf beyond the nine major championships he won. Hogan was in a near-fatal car accident midway through his career, and it wasn’t known if he would ever be able to golf again, let alone compete and win on the PGA Tour.
It was shocking then when he came back to the Tour only eleven months after his accident and picked up his next career win at the 1950 Los Angeles Open, where he defeated Sam Snead in a playoff. Hogan is hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ball strikers in golf history, and his publications on the game, the golf swing, and the mechanics of golf are still must-reads to this day. He had the original post-accident comeback and his tenacity is a gold standard for perseverence.
In 1953, Hogan won the Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open (in his first and only time playing it), a feat deemed his Triple Crown season. He would not play in the PGA Championship that year, as it used to overlap with the scheduling of the British Open. Still having one of the most beautiful golf swings to ever grace the world, Hogan and his Career Grand Slam are even more impressive when you consider the odds he overcame to return from his car accident and continue to compete at the highest level.
Finally, last but not least on the Career Grand Slam list is the only non-American golfer to complete the feat—Gary Player. Player’s nine career major championships tie him with Hogan for fourth-best of all time. His globe-trotting style of playing professional golf everywhere he could arguably led to him becoming the best global ambassador for the game in the sport’s history.
Player competed all around the world, but his greatest successes were on the PGA Tour where he amassed one of the greatest golf resumes and helped bring the dream of playing on Tour to international players for generations to come. Player also revolutionized the importance of health and physical training in golf, becoming known as a golf fitness guru, which he has credited to helping the longevity of his career and golf game.
Many talented players did not finish out a Career Grand Slam but had incredible careers nonetheless. Some of the top major winners and contributors to the game's history outside of our list include Walter Hagen, who sits in third place behind Nicklaus and Woods with 11 major championships, Tom Watson, who almost became the oldest major-winner at 59 in 2009 and won eight majors throughout the course of his career, and Harry Vardon, who competed back in the very early days of the game and won a record six Open Championships (British Opens) to go with one U.S. Open before the Masters even came into existence.
Some readers may have been wondering who is tied with Woods for the record 82 career victories? That honor goes to **Sam Snead ** aka Slammin' Sammy, who is one of the most successful golfers in history over the course of a career, and the longevity of his playing days is still the stuff of legend. His most won tournament on Tour was the Greater Greensboro Open, a feat he accomplished a record eight times. He still holds the record for being the oldest tournament winner in PGA Tour history. Overall, Snead won seven majors over the course of his career.
Arnold Palmer is the last golfer on the list of the top 10 all-time major championship winners who hasn’t been mentioned. No article on golf greatness would be complete without him and the relatable personality that helped bring golf out of the upper echelon of society and into the mainstream. Palmer and his fans, known affectionately as Arnie's Army, were a staple of the PGA Tour for decades.
Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo have some outstanding career highlights, including a combined 12 majors between them (six each). Both contributed great memories and character to the game, and Faldo still can be found contributing to much of the PGA Tour coverage these days as a commentator.
I can’t leave Phil Mickelson off the honorable mentions list, whose ascension in golf revolutionized equipment for left-handed players. Mickelson, who won six majors along the way, including the 2021 PGA Championship and became the oldest player to ever win a major championship in history, is now at the center of the LIV Golf breakaway tour. Seve Ballesteros, who won five majors, was another all-time ball striker. He learned to play by hitting golf balls off the sand on a beach. Byron Nelson, who won 52 tournaments and five majors all before retiring early at age 34, was part of a “Big Three” with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, who both played the majority of their careers on the PGA Tour during the prime of Tiger Woods, are both multiple major champions (Els has four and Vijay has three) that played long, consistent careers at the top of the golfing world. It is argued that Greg Norman, whose two major championship trophies both came at the Open Championship, deserves mentioning due to the copious amount of time he spent ranked as the top golfer in the world in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Younger players who still have good portions of their careers to go warrant discussing as well. Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy both have won four professional majors apiece and are in their 30s at the time of this article. Jordan Spieth won three championships in a very short time at the beginning of his career as well. Dustin Johnson, who of non-retired players has hosted the third-most trophies over his career, has won both a U.S. Open and a Masters. Collin Morikawa has already won two majors in his young career. Even just this past golf season, players like Will Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick have come on strong to become common contenders around the 18th hole on Sunday at major championships.
The list of high-quality golf careers goes on and on. There are countless players who have provided a spark to the game at one time or another, and I’m confident I’ve left names off this list that others would love to see on it. It is also worth noting that other than stating the dominance of Nicklaus and Woods, I have made no effort to rank any golfers across history, for it is almost impossible to compare such varied eras of the game.
Here’s a great example: there are a handful of golfers from around the turn of the 20th century who won four or five Open Championships. These players had no means to travel to the United States every year to compete in a time before airplanes had even been invented. In this time period, Tom Morris Jr. (aka Young Tom Morris) won four straight Open Championships—a feat that has never been matched. He also was the youngest Open Champion of all time at age 17. His father, Old Tom Morris, won four Open Championships in his own right. Trying to compare his career to that of the modern player, who has significantly more Tour events to play and can travel across the globe substantially more than previous generations, is almost like comparing apples to oranges.
The amount of additional Saturday and Sunday appearances in majors, giving players a chance to win, has only increased with the ease of transportation and wider regulations for invitations to qualify. The circumstances surrounding the game of golf are ever-changing, but the greatness from generation to generation remains timeless.
If you have any questions about getting geared up like one of the all-time greats, reach out to a Golf Expert on Curated!