1. Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all-time. No, he hasn't yet eclipsed Jack Nicklaus' record for most major victories, and he might not. Nicklaus won 18 majors, Woods (at the time this is written) has 14. Many people believe Woods can't be called the greatest ever until or unless he beats Jack's record. I am not one of them, obviously, because in ranking golfers we can't consider only one number. If the greatest-ever is determined simply by number of majors won, then why bother with Top 10 or Top 25 or Top 100 lists? Just list the golfers in order of majors won and call it a day. Nobody does that.
We have to examine the totality of the record, both the golfers' career accomplishments, their best individual seasons, their best individual tournaments. And Woods beats Nicklaus on most other counts. Woods won more money titles, more scoring titles, more Player of the Year awards - more than Nicklaus, more than anyone else. Woods has more total PGA Tour wins than Nicklaus. Woods has more seasons with five or more wins than anyone else, and his best seasons are better than Nicklaus' best seasons. Most of Nicklaus' greatest contemporaries - Palmer, Watson, Trevino, Miller - have said that Woods' best was better than Nicklaus' best. Even Jack has tacitly acknowledged this.
The numbers are very important in ranking golfers, obviously, but they have to be viewed in context. The height of Woods' accomplishments - both in terms of numbers of wins per year, in the way he dominated tournaments, in the way he dominated individual majors, in the multitude of monster seasons he's had, and the huge totals he's piled up in wins and majors - make him, in my opinion (and you know what they say about opinions), not just the best-ever, but easily the No. 1 on this list. That's because Woods not only has the crazy big numbers, but he accomplished his many feats in the deepest, most-talented era in golf history.
Extra: Take a Tiger Woods Quiz
2. Jack Nicklaus
Nicklaus did not dominate his contemporaries quite like Tiger dominates his, but what stands out about the Golden Bear is just how consistently great he was. Everyone knows Nicklaus won the most majors (18), but he also finished second in 19 other majors. The breadth and depth of Nicklaus' career matches, and arguably (for the time being) exceeds those of Woods', but Nicklaus' "peak value" falls short of Woods'.
Extra: Try a Jack Nicklaus Quiz
3. Ben Hogan
Despite struggling for years on tour before breaking through, and despite having his career interrupted and cut short by a horrific auto accident, Hogan still managed nine major championship victories and 62 career wins. At his best, he left his contemporaries in the dust. Without his career being curtailed by the car crash, Hogan might well be No. 1 on this list. But that's a what-if.
4. Bobby Jones
How great was Bobby Jones? It's not an easy question to answer. In his day, the four majors were the two Open championships - the British and U.S. - and the two Amateur championships - again, the British and the U.S. Jones won those four events 13 times and won all four of them - the Grand Slam - in 1930. And then retired at the age of 28. He went on to found The Masters. This much is certain: You can argue that Jones was the best-ever, as you can for each of the Top 4 on this list. But on our list he's No. 4, in part because his era - the 1920s - had much less depth compared to later eras.
5. Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer won 62 times on the PGA Tour, including seven major championships. He helped invigorate golf as sport and entertainment with his go-for-broke playing style, and helped revitalize the British Open simply by showing up to play that tournament. At his best, he was one of the best putters of all-time. There is a drop-off from No. 4 to No. 5 - the Top 4 are in a class by themselves. But Arnie tops the next level of golf greats.
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6. Sam Snead
For now - until or unless Woods passes him - Snead holds the record for most career PGA Tour wins with 82. That includes seven wins in majors. Snead first won in 1936, and last won in 1965. When he was 62 years old he finished third in the PGA Championship; when he was 67, he shot 67-66 in the final two rounds of the Quad Cities Open.
7. Tom Watson
Watson is arguably the greatest links golfer ever, with five wins in the British Open. But he was great all-around, surpassing Nicklaus in the late 1970s and winning several head-to-head battles with the Bear, most famously at the 1977 British Open. Watson had 39 PGA Tour wins, including eight majors.
8. Gary Player
Player won "only" 24 times on the PGA Tour, but that was in part because he traveled the world, playing as much off the PGA Tour as on it. He was the first truly globetrotting golf superstar. And nine of those 24 wins were majors. (Player had a surprisingly poor 3-10 record in PGA Tour playoffs, however.) He won well over 100 tournaments in other parts of the globe.
9. Byron Nelson
The career numbers are great - 52 wins, including five majors. Nelson was the first from among himself, Hogan and Snead to achieve greatness, but also the first to depart the scene, retiring young. But there was that incredible 1945 season - 18 wins, including 11 consecutive - that will never be matched.
10. Phil Mickelson
He's never had that one monster season, but Mickelson just keeps piling up wins. After winning the 2013 British Open, he had victories in three of the four majors, five total wins in majors, and 42 wins on the PGA Tour.
And here are the next 15 players in our ranking:
11. Billy Casper
12. Walter Hagen
13. Lee Trevino
14. Harry Vardon
15. Gene Sarazen
16. Seve Ballesteros
17. Peter Thomson
18. Cary Middlecoff
19. Bobby Locke
20. Vijay Singh
21. Nick Faldo
22. Ernie Els
23. Raymond Floyd
24. Johnny Miller
25. Greg Norman
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