As with any greatest of all-time list, comparing players from different eras in any sport is difficult, even impossible to do. It’s especially true in golf, given the game’s technological advances and the changing conditions of golf courses over time.
We considered two primary criteria in compiling this ranking: achievement and impact. Who won major golf tournaments, and who transcended the game in the process?
Spoiler alert: Today’s stars — Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, among others— are not on this list, but as their accomplishments accumulate, they’ll undoubtedly make their way into future rankings.
Without further ado, here’s our list of the greatest golfers of all time:
Mickelson was already dubbed “The Next Nicklaus,” even at the onset of his career. As expected, he has always been surrounded by tremendous expectations, some of which are self-imposed. It can be said that Phil’s failures are almost as well-celebrated as his many successes. But there have been plenty of those triumphs, including 45 PGA Tour championships (tied for eighth all-time) and six majors, including three Masters. His victory in the 2021 PGA Championship, nearly eight years after his previous one, at the 2013 British Open, was possibly his most astonishing. That title earned him the distinction of being the oldest major champion in history at 50 years, 11 months, and seven days.
- Winner of 6 major titles ((3 Masters, 1 British Open, 2 PGA Championships)
- One of eight players with at least 3 Masters titles
- One of fifteen players to have won at least three legs out of 4 major titles
- Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012
- Runner-up at the US Open a record six times
- Winner of 45 PGA Tour events, ranking eighth all-time
- 24 top-three finishes and 39 top-ten finishes at major competitions
Sarazen ruled the PGA Tour in the early 1930s. He won each major once between 1932 and 1935. During that same period, Olin Dutra was the only golfer to win more than one majors, the 1932 PGA Championship and the 1934 U.S. Open. From 1930 to 1935, Sarazen won 19 PGA events and concluded his career with seven major titles.
- Named AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1932
- 38 PGA Tour titles
- Won seven major titles and a career Grand Slam
- In 1935, he hit “the shot heard ’round the world” on the fifteenth hole at the Augusta National Golf Club during the final round of the Masters Tournament.
- Won his second U.S. Open (1932) by playing the final 28 holes in a remarkable 100 strokes, one of the greatest performances in golf history.
- Creator of the sand wedge
10.) Byron Nelson
Although he isn’t the only top ten golfers affected by the two World Wars, no other player’s career has been impacted quite like Lord Byron’s.
Byron Nelson won half of his 52 PGA Tour victories between 1944 and 1945. He won eight titles in 1944 and a single-year record of 18 championships the following year. During this streak, he won an astonishing 11 tournaments in a row, including the PGA Championship.
Unfortunately, the only majors held from 1943 to 1945 were the 1944 and 1945 PGA Championships. Nelson finished second in 1944 and bagged the title in 1945.
From 1940 through 1945, there were only ten major championships contested. Nelson won three of them and finished fifth or higher in nine of those ten. Everybody Byron would have won more than five majors in his career if the other 14 majors had not been canceled due to World War II.
Despite retiring from professional golf at 34 in 1946, he continued to excel at the Masters until he was 40. He only won twice, but from 1937 through 1951, he finished in the top eight in all 12 Masters tournaments.
- 52 PGA Tour titles
- Five majors won (1937 Masters, 1939 US Open, 1940 PGA Championship, 1942 Masters, 1945 PGA Championship)
09.) Tom Watson
Few players have ruled an individual major like Tom Watson did the British Open. Watson won the event five times in nine years (1975-83), tied for second in the tenth year (1984), and forced a playoff before conceding the title in 2009 at the age of 59.
Only Jack Nicklaus (six Masters, five PGA Championships) and Peter Thomson (five British Opens) have won the same major at least five times in their careers since 1930.
However, Watson isn’t just a one-trick pony by any means. He also won the Masters twice, the US Open once, and finished runner-up in eight majors. He’s in the top ten at each of the four majors at least ten times, a feat that only he and Nicklaus have accomplished.
Thanks to Byron Nelson, Watson’s career reached new heights. Lord Byron took an interest in young Watson in 1974 and became his mentor. Under his tutelage, Watson’s career took off, as he won his first major championship within a year of working together.
- 39 PGA Tour wins, including eight major titles
- 6-time PGA Tour Player of the Year
- 5-time British Open Champion
- Made at least a cut per year for 37 consecutive years, from 1971-2007
08.) Gary Player
Gary Player won competitions on every continent except Antarctica. He won 63 events in South Africa, and 165 professional victories are credited to his name on various tours from 1955 to 2015.
It’s impressive that he spread those wins out over two decades, winning majors at the ages of 23 and 42. However, he never won more than three PGA Tour events in the same calendar year, making it difficult to put him into contention as the best golfer ever.
But it’s beyond impressive that nine of his 24 PGA Tour victories were majors. This achievement puts him in a tie with Ben Hogan for the fourth-most in PGA Tour annals. It’s also interesting to note that Player is one of only five players to have won a career Grand Slam, which he accomplished in his first four major victories.
- One of only five players (Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, and Tiger Woods) to win a career Grand Slam
- One of only four players (Woods, Nicklaus, and Nick Faldo) to win the British Open and Masters three times each
- Won on the PGA or Senior Tours a record five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
07.) Bobby Jones
Bobby Jones is probably the biggest asterisk in the PGA’s record books, having won seven majors despite being eligible for only half of them during his brief career.
The Masters wasn’t an event until Jones co-founded it four years after retiring in 1934. From 1934 to 1948, Jones competed in the Masters on an exhibition basis. However, it was the only tournament he entered after 1930, and he never finished in the top ten.
Jones was also barred from competing in the PGA Championship because he was an amateur. Instead, he competed in the US Amateur and the British Amateur, both of which were majors at the time. He won the former five times and the latter once, for an unofficial total of thirteen majors.
As fate would have it, Jones will retire from golf at the age of 28, having won all 13 of his majors (seven official, six unofficial) in eight years. In comparison, Tiger Woods had won eight majors by the same age, and Jack Nicklaus had won seven. Sam Snead didn’t win a single major until he was 30.
Many believe that if Jones had continued to play professionally for another decade or two, he would have been the best golfer of all time.
- 1930 Grand Slam winner – the US and British Opens and US and British Amateurs
- 9 PGA Tour Titles
- 7 Major Championships won (1923 US Open, 1926 US Open, 1926 British Open, 1927 British Open, 1929 US Open, 1930 US Open, 1930 British Open)
- Founder of The Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club
06.) Arnold Palmer
Between 1958 and 1964, “The King” won 62 tournaments, including seven majors. Four of those victories were at the Masters, a feat only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have accomplished.
Palmer won 29 titles in four years, from 1960 to 1963, finishing first at least six times in each of those. Neither Woods nor Nicklaus ever had a four-year streak with six or more victories in a row.
As expected, Palmer was named PGA Player of the Year in both 1960 and 1962, winning two majors in each.
Palmer’s career was peppered with “close but no cigar” instances. Forced to share the spotlight with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player during their respective primes. As a member of golf’s “Big Three” in that era, Palmer finished second in ten majors—one each year from 1960 to 1968 and once more in 1970. Palmer conceded the title after losing in 18-hole playoffs in 1962, 1963, and 1966 editions of the U.S. Open.
It can be argued then that had a couple of those second-place finishes resulted in victories, Palmer would undoubtedly be among the top three golfers of all time. He is tied for seventh in career majors and has never completed a Grand Slam in his career.
- 7 Major Titles
- 60 PGA Tour wins
- 1st PGA Tour millionaire
- 15 consecutive years with at least one victory
05.) Sam Snead
If winning is the measure of greatness in golf, there’s never been a better player than Sam Snead. Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player, with his iconic, smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing. He won 82 PGA Tour titles and anywhere from 135 to 165 victories worldwide, depending on who you ask.
He won in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in that event). Snead also won three Masters, including a playoff victory over friend and rival Ben Hogan in 1954. He bagged a total of three PGA Championships and a British Open.
However, there’s one thing missing in the Slammer’s resume that prevents him from legitimately claiming the title of greatest golfer ever. Somehow, he never won the one tournament that should’ve been his by birthright. He never won a US Open, but his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish the plethora of accomplishments he made over his illustrious career.
- Won seven majors, including three Masters and three PGA Championships
- Holds the record of all-time PGA Tour wins of 82, spanning from 1936-1965
- Finished in the top 10 in major tournaments for five different decades
04.) Walter Hagen
Walter Hagen is one of only three golfers in history to have won at least ten major titles in his career. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus are consistently ranked first and second in any list of the greatest golfers. On the other hand, Hagen is frequently overlooked on these lists, perhaps because he played so long ago,
The most remarkable aspect of Hagen’s accomplishments was the limited opportunities he had to play in major tournaments. He never won the Masters because it wasn’t established until 1934, well after his heyday. Also, due to World War I, there was only one major tournament played per year from 1915 to 1919 (when Hagen was 23-27 years of age). Of the 37 majors played between 1914-1929, Hagen won 11 of them.
Though it wasn’t officially recognized as a major, the Western Open was effectively the fourth major during Hagen’s playing days. It was one of the events where all of the top golfers competed. In total, Hagen won five Western Opens in his career (1916, 1921, 1926, 1927, and 1932), so some may argue he actually won a total of 16 majors.
Hagen is frequently credited with establishing professional golf as it is today, with the World Golf Hall of Fame hailing him as “the world’s first full-time tournament professional.”
- Won 11 majors – two US Opens, four British Opens, and five PGA Tour titles
- Amassed 45 PGA Tour victories
03.) Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan dominated the PGA Tour from 1946 to 1953, despite a near-fatal car accident that cost him the entire 1949 season.
In 1946 alone, Hogan won a career-high 13 tournaments, including the first of his nine majors. From 1946 to 1948, he won 30 tournaments and was named PGA Player of the Year in 1948, when he won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. (Hogan was also named Player of the Year in 1950, 1951, and 1953.)
That was the start of an incredible run in which he won eight of the 11 majors he entered and finished in the top seven in the other three.
Because of the accident and the fact that he didn’t usually play in the British Open or the PGA Championship, those 11 tournaments were spread out over the course of six seasons, somewhat obscuring the magnitude of the feat. But in 1953, he went a perfect 3-for-3, winning the Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open—the only appearance he had in the tournament.
Tiger Woods is the only other golfer in history to have won three majors in the same calendar year.
Hogan finished in the top ten in 40 of the 58 majors he competed in during his career. That’s 69.0 percent, compared to Woods’ 49.4 percent (38 of 77) and Jack Nicklaus’ 44.5 percent (73 of 164). Had Hogan competed in as many tournaments as those guys, he might have been arguably the greatest golfer in history.
- Won 64 PGA Tour events, including nine majors
- Only player in history to win the US Open, Masters, and British Open in the same year
- One of five players to accomplish a career Grand Slam
02.) Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods was a god among men during his prime, and it seemed only a matter of time before he broke every PGA Tour record ever set.
Woods finished in the top 30 in 44 of 46 consecutive majors from 1997 to 2008, winning 14. In 2000-01, he won four consecutive majors, making him the only person in history to hold all four titles simultaneously. And that wasn’t even the most impressive stretch of his career; from 2005 to 2008, Woods finished in the top four in 12 of 14 majors, winning six of them.
Before he reached 33, Woods won all 14 majors (at least three of each) and 65 of his 79 PGA events. It got to the point where you just assumed if he were within four strokes of the lead going into Sunday, he’d win. And if he had a 54-hole lead in a major, the opposition can bid their title hopes goodbye. The only question for the final 18 holes was how many strokes will Tiger win by?
However, after multiple knee and back surgeries, a scandal in 2009, and a DUI charge in 2017, Woods’ most recent decade is more of a “what could have been?”
Woods, who was once on track to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open. He’s had a half-dozen top-five finishes in majors over the last decade, but that only brings his career total to 31—25 fewer than Nicklaus’ 56.
In 2019, Woods won his fifth Masters and 15th major championship overall. His sheer impact and level of achievement have been undeniable and unprecedented. Simply put, at his best, Woods has played the game better than anyone else has. Now, Jack’s record of 18 major titles is back in play.
It’s safe to say, don’t ever count Tiger out.
- 82 PGA Tour victories, tied with Sam Snead for most all-time
- 15 major championships, second only to Jack Nicklaus
- The only player in history to win four consecutive majors
- Lowest scoring average in PGA Tour annals
- PGA Tour Player of the Year, a record ten times
01.) Jack Nicklaus
Both Sam Snead and Tiger Woods won more PGA Tour events than Jack Nicklaus, but the Golden Bear was in a league of his own at the majors.
Not only did Nicklaus win 18 majors, but he also finished second 19 times. He won at least three majors and finished in the top two at least eight times in each.
No other golfer had more than 46 top-10 finishes, but Nicklaus finished in the top ten 73 times and in the top five 56 times. From 1971 to 1977, he finished in the top five in 23 of 28 majors, including six wins.
Nicklaus’ career rate of top-10 finishes in majors was 44.5 percent, primarily because he played golf well past his prime. In 65 of his final 72 majors, he finished outside the top ten.
However, from 1960 to 1982, Nicklaus competed in 88 majors. He won 19.3 percent (17), finished in the top five 60.2 percent (53) of the time, and finished 10th or better 75.0 percent of the time (66). Even during his 12-year peak from 1998 to 2009, Tiger Woods only finished in the top ten in 33 of 48 majors (68.8 percent). It’s almost unfair that Nicklaus was more consistent and for a longer period (at least an entire decade longer).
To prove this point, Nicklaus, then age 46, was able to rekindle much of his vintage wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, and Norman — all of whom were at the peak of their careers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986, in one of the greatest sporting moments of all time.
- won 73 PGA Tour events, including a record 18 major titles
- holds the record of most Masters titles with 6
- finished in the top 5 of major tournaments a record 56 times and in the top 10 a record 73 times.
- won at least two PGA Tour events 17 seasons in a row (1962-78)
There you have it, our list of the ten greatest golfers of all time. What do you think of our picks? Make sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments field. We are sure that most, if not all of these legends have inspired you to play golf.