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The Best Players

As much as golf should be about a peaceful walk and having a "one with nature" experience - it usually comes down to numbers. Numbers like handicap or score. We've all heard questions such as - what did you make on that hole? Or, what did you shoot? Or, how many strokes will you give me? Rarely do we hear - did you have a good time out there today?

To arrive at golf's present requires a stroll through its past, a walk to remember just how closely linked the game's eras and stars are. The great historic figures -- Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Sam Snead among them -- are a part of a bygone era. The Depression and World War II years, are some of the bleakest in golf history. This was the era when golf's democratization began. Works Progress Administration projects helped spread the game westward, and women's participation rates grew to 25%, about where they are today.

The game’s best players

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 took the bold and brazen path and hereby present the unabashed rankings of the game’s best players. 

Before Tiger, Jack Nicklaus 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).

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, Tiger Wood’s still stuck on 14 majors, but he now has over 100 Tour victories, 20 more than anyone else.

No one was better at winning championships than Bobby 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.

Here is another close contest—Hogan versus Sam 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. 

Roundly agreed to be the finest ball-striker the game has ever seen, Ben Hogan 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.  

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. Walter Hagen was also the first American professional golfer to be a bona fide star. 

Yes, Arnold Palmer 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. 

His legacy both benefits and suffers from that mind-boggling 1945 season: benefits in that what Byron Nelson 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. 

Gene Sarazen was 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. 

Arguably the best links golfer of all time and one of the toughest competitors, Tom Watson (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.  

When Phil Mickelson 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. 

Billy Casper iss 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.

13  Surely no one has ever accused the Merry Mex (Lee Trevino) of lacking flair. But the truth is, it’s his game that made most of the noise and headlines. 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. 

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 (Cary Middlecoff), 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. 

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 Ray Floyd is the game’s only player with PGA Tour victories in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.  

International Players

A century ago Harry Vardon 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?

Golf’s number-one ambassador, most indefatigable traveler, and relentless fitness fanatic, Gary 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. 

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 Ballesteros 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. 

Six majors—three each in the Masters and British Open—speak more eloquently than Nick 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. 

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 Greg Norman bridged the Nicklaus and Woods eras stylishly and was world number one a total of 331 weeks.

Women Players

As with the men, it’s a tough call between two players of different eras, Annika Sorenstam 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. 

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. Mickey Wright was also blessed with what is arguably the nearest-to-perfect golf swing the game has ever seen. 

Until and unless Tiger tacks on a few more Ws, she remains the winningest golfer of all time with 88 victories. Kathy 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.

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. Babe Zaharias 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. 

In one sense, Patty Berg 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.

The best players of the pre-World War II era were Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. Okay, there are a few things to consider. The competition of the day was top heavy. There were a few great players and many average competitors. They won everything there was to win. Between the three of them - they won 31 Major Championships!

The best players of the World War II - post-World War II era were clearly Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. World War II kept a lot of top players from the tour. Because of this, Byron Nelson won many of his events when others were off to war. Still, you cannot argue with his stroke average or his record - it's phenomenal! Between Nelson, Hogan and Snead - a total of 21 Major Championships and over 175 other events - amazing! The post-World War II years can be called the "Comeback Age," in part because of the extraordinary recoveries made by Mr. Hogan, after a nearly fatal auto-bus accident, and by Ms. Zaharias, who won the 1954 U.S. Women's Open while still fighting colon cancer (and wearing a colostomy bag). Their stories hit a nerve with the public because the nation and its soldiers, too, were recovering from wars.

The best players of the Baby Boomer era were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Palmer literally brought golf to the masses as its first television star. He was also, in his prime, one of the all-time great putters. Gary Player won 9 Major Championships and over 100 worldwide events. He was also one of the best bunker players in history - if not the greatest. Compared with the two previous eras, the "Baby Boomer" was by far the deepest as it relates to competition. Between Nicklaus, Palmer and Player - a total of 36 Major Championships and over 200 other events - a truly incredible record!

The best players between the late 70's and early 90's were Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. It pains me to not name Greg Norman. Top to bottom - the overall competition was strongest during this time. Between Watson, Ballesteros and Faldo - a total of 19 Major Championships and over 150 other events.

Other than Tiger Woods, it's hard to say what other players are the best of the modern era. Phil Mickelson seems a logical choice with 3 Major Championships and 30 PGA Tour wins. But with his poor international record - Phil isn't a lock. Ernie Els might be a good choice with 3 Major Championships and a number of wins around the world. However, Ernie's lack of winning the last few years makes him an iffy choice. How about Vijay Singh? Vijay has 3 Majors as well and a number of other wins. When it all shakes out, Vijay might just be this era's second best player. Or, what about Retief Goosen? Retief has 2 Majors and many worldwide wins.

Lee Trevino has never gotten the credit his record deserves because of his ungraceful swing and his standup comic's chattiness, which often seemed staged, and because he was an "ethnic" from the other side of the golf establishment. When golf eras are enumerated, we hear of Hagen, Sarazen and Jones, Hogan, Nelson and Snead, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, Watson, Miller and Norman, Woods, Mickelson, and Duval. Trevino is usually offered only as an afterthought, which should hardly be the case for someone who won 6 major championships and more than 50 tournaments on the PGA and Senior PGA tours and who the real experts acknowledge was one of the best ball strikers and shot makers the game ever had.

Walter Hagen is known as the first true pro golfer, appearing in over 2,500 events, and was possibly the greatest ever match player as he once won 22 straight 36-hole matches in the PGA. He was a real show man with a remarkable ability to recover from poor shots with magnificent ones. "The Haig" captained the Ryder Cup team in six of the first seven Ryder Cups.

Gary Player is the most successful non-American golfer in history and paved the way for today's top South African golfers. He won nine majors and is one of five golfers to win all four. He has a remarkable record of winning at least one sanctioned international tournament in every year from 1955 to 1982, which is 10 years longer than anyone else has ever managed. He won the World Match Play title five times, the Australian Open seven times, the South African Open 13 times and in winning the 1974 Brazilian Open, he shot the only 59 ever in a national open.

Tom Watson was the King of the British Open with five victories between 1975 and 1983. He won eight majors overall and was Nicklaus' rival in the latter part of the Golden Bear's career. He won 39 events on the PGA Tour, including two Masters and a US Open, and from 1977 won six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards and led the money list five times. Tom Watson started playing golf at age six in 1955 when his father, Ray, a scratch handicap, put a cut-down, hickory-shafted 5-iron in his hands. After four years attending Stanford University, he turned pro in 1971 and got his first PGA Tour win at the 1974 Western Open. He had his breakout year in 1977 when he won the Masters and the first of his five Open Championships. Winning a second Green Jacket in 1981 and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach the following year.

Byron Nelson is remembered for having the best year in golf in 1945 with a streak of 11 victories in a row in a year when he won 18 tournaments and had seven second-placings in 30 starts. Also had 19 consecutive rounds under 70 with a scoring average of 68.33 for the season. He won five major championships through his career and was so machine-like in his approach to golf that the USGA named its mechanical club and ball-testing device the "Iron Byron".

Sam Snead holds the record for most PGA tournaments won with a grand total of 82 in 135 victories around the world in his long career. His last victory in 1965 made him the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event when he won the Greater Greensboro Open aged 52 years and 10 months. He won seven majors between 1942 and 1954 but famously threw away his best chance to win the US Open in 1939 when he led for 71 holes before he took an eight on the last.

Ben Hogan during a playing career that saw its first win in 1938 and last victory the 1959 Colonial, Hogan fought back from two major disruptions - service in World War II and a near-fatal head-on accident in 1949. He won nine majors, six after the accident, and is one of only four men to win all four majors at least once. In 1953 he won the Masters, US Open and British Open in one season. He was the PGA Tour's leading money winner from 1940-42 and in 1946 and 1948.

Robert "Bobby" Jones was certainly the greatest amateur golfer in history and could have been the greatest professional golfer but he never turned pro and retired at just 28-years of age. He never played competitive golf for more than three months in a year but when he did play he was remarkable. He played the US Open 11 times and on eight occasions he finished either first or second with only one finish outside the top 10. He won 13 majors in eight years, four of those the US Amateurs. In 1930 he won what was then the Grand Slam - the British and US Amateur and Open Championships - and retired after that year to practice law. His lasting legacy is the Augusta golf course that he helped design, which is the permanent home of the Masters.

Arnold Palmer was one of the most popular players with a fanatical group of supporters known as Arnie's Army. He won the Masters four times from 1958 to 1964, the 1960 US Open and consecutive British Opens in 1961 and 1962. Arnie won the US Amateur Championship in 1954 and turned pro a few months later and his first PGA Tour win came at the 1955 Canadian Open. He was the first golfer to earn one million dollars on the PGA Tour and between 1955 and 1973 he won 62 PGA tour events. He won 29 of those titles in a hot four-year spell from 1960-63 with his greatest year of golf in 1960 when he won eight events.

Jack Nicklaus (The Golden Bear) dominated a long era of golf from the 60s through to the 80s and played his final competitive round at the British Open. Nicklaus was an outstanding champion who, after winning the US Amateur twice, won an amazing 18 majors - six Masters, four US Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships. He completed three full cycles of the grand slam. He was the youngest Masters champion when he won it in 1963 and 23 years later became the oldest winner in 1986. Between 1962 and 1986 Nicklaus won 70 events on the PGA tour, a record bettered only by Sam Snead.

George Peper. LINKS Top 25 Players of All Time. Links Magazine. Fall 2013.


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