Picking the greatest 6 golfers of all time is always going to be controversial. Do you base your selection on statistics or major championship victories? How do you compare the great golfers of yesteryear with the modern day greats? In the following selections I have tried to take a wider view, taking into account not only their individual achievements but also their influence on the game. Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros are included as much for their swashbuckling style as for their achievements, helping to make golf the popular sport that it is today. The records of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus speak for themselves whilst Tom Watson and Ben Hogan succeeded as much through dedication as natural talent. If you were to Bet on Golf there are plenty of other worthy contenders but these are my top 6 golfers of all time.
1 Seve Ballesteros
Ballesteros won over 90 international tournaments, including five major championships. He won the British Open Championship three times (1979, 1984 and 1988) and the US Masters twice (1980 and 1983). There are undoubtedly golfers with an even more impressive statistical record but, in terms of natural talent, Seve was surely one of the greatest golfers of all time.
He arrived on the world golfing stage when he finished second in the Open at Royal Birkdale at the age of just 19. His naturally aggressive game together with his incredible ability to improvise made him the most exciting golfer on the European tour. Fifty of his victories came in Europe and he became the driving force behind Europe’s resurgence in the Ryder Cup, helping them to five wins as a player and once as captain. His partnership with fellow Spaniard José María Olazábal was the most successful in the history of the competition, scoring 11 wins and two halves in 15 matches. Possibly the proudest moment of his life came when he captained the European side to victory at Valderrama Golf Club in 1997. He also became the ultimate match play golfer, winning the World Match Play Championship five times.
He topped the European Tour Order of Merit six times and won his first Open Championship in 1979. He was famously dubbed “the car park champion” after making a birdie on the 16th despite a wild tee shot. Ballesteros won his last major at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1988 with a final round of 65 to defeat Nick Price. Ballesteros led the Official World Golf Rankings for a total of 61 weeks between 1986 and 1989. Back injuries sadly took their toll during the 90s and he was never able to recapture the brilliance of his earlier years. Ballesteros tragically died of brain cancer in May 2011 at the age of 54.
2 Tom Watson
In the 1970s and 80s, Watson was one of the leading players in the world. He won eight major championships and topped the US PGA Tour money list five times. His major victories were five British Open championships, two US Masters titles and one US Open title. Only Hogan, Nicklaus, Player, Woods and Hagen recorded more major championship wins. He was in direct competition with Jack Nicklaus for much of his career, defeating him at the 1977 Masters and British Open and the 1982 US Open.
Watson won on his debut in the British Open in 1975, holing a 20-foot putt on the final green to go into a playoff with Jack Newton, eventually winning by one stroke. A similar length of putt was enough to defeat Nicklaus at the Masters in 1977. The two then clashed again in the British Open at Turnberry, both shooting 65 in their third round and duelling for the lead throughout the final day. In the end, Watson prevailed with a 65 to Nicklaus’s 66 with a yawning ten-stroke gap back to third place. His victory in the 1982 US Open also came at the expense of Nicklaus, chipping in from off the green on the 17th and making a birdie at the last for a two-stroke victory.
Watson came close to a career grand slam of the four majors when he was beaten by John Mahaffey in a 3-way sudden-death playoff for the USPGA championship in 1978. He so nearly capped a glorious career with a sixth Open when leading the field in 2009, missing an eight-foot putt on the final hole before losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Watson has won three Senior British Open Championship titles (2003, 2005 and 2007). He captained the American side to victory in the 1993 Ryder Cup at The Belfry and is set to lead the side again in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
3 Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus won a record 18 major championships, finishing either second or third on a further 28 occasions. He had 73 career victories, third on the all-time list. His first professional win came in none other than the U.S. Open in 1962. At the age of 26, Nicklaus completed a career grand slam of all four major championships.
In 1971, Nicklaus won his second US PGA plus four additional PGA tournaments including the Tournament of Champions to establish a new single season money record. He then won the first two major championships in 1972, leading throughout for three-stroke victories. He won a total of seven tournaments during 1972, and finished runner-up in a further three PGA Tour events. In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, Nicklaus found himself duelling with Tom Watson. Their tremendous battle at Turnberry in the British Open in 1977 is widely regarded as one of the finest competitions in Open golf history, Watson eventually prevailing by a single stroke.
When Nicklaus won the 1978 Open Championship at St. Andrews he become the only player to have won each major championship three times, a record since matched by Tiger Woods. Nicklaus would set a new scoring record at the 1980 U.S. Open with an aggregate of 272, beating his own previous best of 275. That record stood until Rory McIlroy’s 268 in 2011. In the 1980 PGA Championship, Nicklaus won by a record seven shots, his fifth and final victory in the tournament.
One of the most fondly remembered victories of Nicklaus’s career came at the Masters in 1986, shooting 30 on the back nine to become the oldest winner in the tournament’s history at 46. It was his 18th and final major championship triumph. His career spanned nearly 40 years with 73 top-10 finishes between 1960 and 1998.
4 Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods reached the number one ranking position a year after turning professional in 1996 and dominated world golf throughout the 2000s. He was world number one for more consecutive weeks and total number of weeks than any other player in history. He has won 14 major golf championships and 75 PGA Tour events. He became the youngest player to achieve the career Grand Slam of all four majors and equalled Jack Nicklaus by winning each Grand Slam event three times.
He won his first major at the US Masters in 1997, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the event. In 2000 Woods won six consecutive tournaments including the US Open, the longest winning streak since 1948. He also broke the record for lowest scoring average in tour history that season. When he won the 2001 Masters at Augusta, he became the first player to hold all four major professional golf titles at the same time. He led the rankings for a record 264 weeks before being displaced by Vijay Singh in 2004. In 2008 he won the US Open despite being missing from the tour for 2 months following knee surgery.
Revelations about his private life caused Woods to leave the tour at the end of 2009 and he returned to competition at the 2010 US Masters, finishing tied for fourth place. Woods did not win a single tournament that year and his world ranking position began to slide. He has since started to rebuild his career and recorded his 73rd PGA Tour win at the Memorial Tournament in June 2012, tying Jack Nicklaus’ record for most PGA Tour victories. He eclipsed Nicklaus’s record at the AT&T National and is now back at number 2 in the world rankings. The 2013 US Money List reveals that Tiger Woods Betting is still considered a dead cert. Tiger is still favourite for most tournaments he starts.
5 Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer was one of the “The Big Three” alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the players who elevated golf’s popularity through television in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Palmer won his first major championship at the 1958 US Masters and he was the first sportsman signed by pioneering sports agent Mark McCormack. Palmer’s appeal included his exciting approach to the game and his easy-going attitude, making him very popular with the growing television audience.
Palmer was persuaded by McCormack that success in the British Open would make him a global superstar and he played in 1960, having already won both the Masters and U.S. Open. He lost by one shot to Kel Nagle but went on to win it in 1961 and 1962. He won the US Masters on four occasions (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964) and the US Open in 1960.
Between 1960 and 1963, Palmer won 29 PGA tournaments and gained a huge following world wide. By the late 1960s Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player had started to dominate world golf but Palmer won on the PGA Tour every year from 1955 to 1971 inclusive. Palmer played on six Ryder Cup teams and was playing captain in 1963 and non-playing captain in 1975. He was also one of the headline names in establishing the Senior PGA Tour, winning ten events including five senior majors. He also won the first World Match Play Championship, an event originally conceived by McCormack.
6 Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan won nine major championships, level with Gary Player and behind only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen. He is one of only five golfers to have achieved a career grand slam of all four major championships.
Although he turned professional in 1930, it was ten years before he enjoyed his first pro tournament victory, going on to win three consecutive tournaments in North Carolina. Hogan is remembered for his fierce determination and meticulous attention to detail, making him a formidable adversary. Between 1938 and 1959, Hogan won 63 tournaments despite the interruption of military service in World War II and a near-fatal car accident in 1949. Remarkably, Hogan returned to tournament golf within a year of the accident and was only denied victory by Sam Snead in a playoff for the Los Angeles Open.
He won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1953, one of three majors he won that year. That achievement has still not been surpassed. He was denied the opportunity of winning all four majors because the 1953 PGA Championship overlapped the British Open.