Aside from LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan, there is no fiercer debate about the “best ever” in sports than Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus. The two PGA Tour legends, with a combined 32 majors, were the obvious choices for No. 1 and No. 2 on this list of the best golfers, but in what order? Below, here’s our top all-time greatest golfers.
Before we get to those two men, however, get ready for a trip deep into PGA history. Aside from Woods and Nicklaus, the most recent major won by a golfer in our top 10 was the 1983 British Open. There are a few more current players in the honorable mentions, but most of the greats could only be seen on black-and-white televisions.
Since the four majors are the most important points of each PGA season, they were the main data point considered in ranking these all-time greats. But we have also taken into account victories in tournaments other than majors, top five and top ten finishes in them and the length and dominance of each golfer.
When necessary, the “what if” factor was also taken into account. For example, what if World War II had not been the cause of the cancellation of 14 majors during Byron Nelson’s heyday? What if Bobby Jones had not retired from golf at the ripe old age of 28?
- 24 victories on the PGA tour
- British Open 1959, 1968 and 1974 – Augusta Masters 1961, 1974 and 1978
- PGA Championship 1962 and 1972 – U.S. Open 1965
If professional victories on all tours were counted, Gary Player would rank higher on this list. The South African golfer won tournaments on every continent except Antarctica. Player won 63 events in South Africa and is credited with 165 professional victories on various circuits from 1955 to 2015.
But since we are specifically ranking the top PGA golfers, Player only has 24 wins that matter, which is not even half the total of most of the men ranked ahead of him.
On the one hand, it’s impressive that he spread those victories over two decades, winning majors at both 23 and 42. On the other hand, he never won more than three PGA Tour events in the same year, so it’s hard to argue that he was the best in the world.
The good news for the “Black Knight” is that nine of those 24 victories were majors, which puts him in a tie with Ben Hogan for fourth in PGA Tour history. Player is also one of only five men to have achieved a career Grand Slam, and he did so in his first four majors victories.
Considering the number of majors that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino won during Player’s prime, it’s amazing that he was able to achieve so many.
- 39 victories on the PGA tour
- British Open 1975, 1977, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983 – Augusta Masters 1977 and 1981
- 1982 U.S. Open
Few men have dominated an individual tournament as Tom Watson did at the British Open. Watson won that event five times in a span of nine years (1975-83), tied for second place in the 10th year of that streak (1984) and incredibly forced a playoff before finishing second in 2009 at the age of 59.
Jack Nicklaus (six Masters, five PGA Championships) and Peter Thomson (five British Opens) are the only other golfers since 1930 to have won the same major at least five times in their careers.
However, Watson was not limited to a single tournament. He also won the Masters twice, the U.S. Open once and second place in the majors eight times. He finished in the top 10 at least 10 times in each of the four majors, a feat only he and Nicklaus can boast.
Despite a long career and all those top-10s, Watson’s peak was shorter than most all-time greats. Of his 39 PGA Tour victories, 33 came between January 1977 and July 1984. He was named PGA Player of the Year in six of those eight years (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982 and 1984), but did not win much outside of that period.
As a result, Watson does not rank in the top 10 in PGA Tour victories and is sixth in major titles, despite being the king of the links for the better part of a decade.
- 52 victories on the PGA tour
- Masters of Augusta 1937 and 1942 – PGA Championship 1940 and 1945
- 1939 U.S. Open
Several of the top 10 golfers were affected by World War I or World War II, but none like Lord Byron. Fifty percent of Byron Nelson’s 52 PGA Tour victories came in 1944 and 1945. He won eight in the first year and a record 18 events in the second, including 11 consecutive tournaments.
Unfortunately, from 1943 to 1945, the only majors held were the 1944 and 1945 PGA Championships. Nelson was the runner-up in 1944 and the winner in 1945.
Widening that window a bit, only 10 majors were held from 1940 to 1945. Nelson won three of them and finished fifth or better in nine of the 10. Had the other 14 majors not been cancelled due to World War II, Lord Byron almost certainly would have won more than five majors in his career.
Although he retired from professional golf in 1946 at the age of 34, he continued to excel at the Masters until he was 40. He won only twice, but from 1937 to 1951, he finished in the top eight in all 12 years the Masters was played.
However, it wasn’t just at the Masters. Nelson played in a total of 29 majors from 1937 through 1951, finishing eighth or better in 26 of them, including six second-place finishes. For a decade and a half, if Nelson played in a major, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be in contention on the last day.
- 62 victories on the PGA tour
- British Open 1961 and 1962 – Masters of Augusta 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964
- 1960 U.S. Open
Long before he became the namesake of a delicious blend of iced tea and lemonade, Arnold Palmer had a great career on the PGA Tour.
“The King” won 62 tournaments over nearly two decades, including seven majors between 1958 and 1964. Four of those victories were at the Masters, a total that only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have reached.
Palmer had 29 of his victories in a four-year period from 1960 to 1963, winning at least six events in each of those years. Neither Woods nor Nicklaus ever had a four-year streak of six or more victories in each year. Not surprisingly, Palmer was named PGA Player of the Year in both 1960 and 1962, winning two majors in each.
In Palmer’s career there were also plenty of “close calls” results. Forced to share some of the limelight with Nicklaus and Gary Player during their respective prime, this member of golf’s “Big Three” was runner-up in 10 majors, one each year from 1960 to 1968 and once more in 1970. In the 1962, 1963 and 1966 U.S. Opens, Palmer came up short in the 18-hole playoffs.
If a couple of those second-place finishes had turned into victories, Palmer would undoubtedly be among the top three golfers of all time. As it is, he is tied for seventh in career majors and could never complete the Grand Slam. Palmer is a legend synonymous with golf, but there are six more impressive careers to consider.
- 82 PGA tour victories
- British Open 1946 – Augusta Masters 1949, 1952 and 1954
- PGA Championship 1942, 1949 and 1951
Although Sam Snead is nowhere near the top of the major championships, he is the all-time leader in PGA Tour victories. There are three main reasons why Snead has not won more than seven majors.
The most important is that he only played the British Open five times in his career, compared to the 44 times he competed in the Masters. According to Bob Carter in an article for ESPN, Snead only played (and won) the 1946 British Open due to “contractual ties with a sponsor.” From 1938 to 1961, that was the only time he played in the British Open, which reduced his chances of winning majors by nearly 25%.
World War II was another important factor, as a total of 14 majors were cancelled between 1940 and 1945. As a result, Snead missed a lot of opportunities between the ages of 28 and 33, an age bracket in which Tiger Woods won six majors and Jack Nicklaus five.
Last but not least, the U.S. Open was an unfinished business for Snead throughout his career. He achieved 12 top-10 finishes at the US Open and was runner-up four times, but that major was his rock in the shoe.
However, Snead won at least six events in six different years, the best of which was his 11-win season in 1950, although he did not win a major that year, interestingly.
To date, he is the oldest player to win a PGA Tour event, winning the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52 years, 10 months and eight days. And while his last major victory was in 1954, Snead also finished in the top 10 at the PGA Championship in 1972, 1973 and 1974. He was 62 when he tied for third place in the last of those three years.
- 9 PGA tour victories
- British Open 1926, 1927 and 1930 – U.S. Open 1923, 1926, 1929 and 1930
Bobby Jones is the definitive asterisk in the PGA record books, having won seven majors despite only being able to participate in 50% of them during his short career. The Masters was not an event until Jones co-founded it in 1934, four years after his retirement. Jones played in the Masters as an exhibition from 1934 to 1948. However, it was the only tournament he played in after 1930, and he never finished in the top 10.
And as an amateur, Jones could not compete in the PGA Championship. Instead, he played the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur, which were considered majors at the time. He won the former five times and the latter once, for an unofficial total of 13 majors won.
Here’s the kicker: Jones retired from golf at age 28, winning his 13 majors (seven official, six unofficial) in a span of eight years. By the same age, Tiger Woods had won eight majors and Jack Nicklaus seven. Sam Snead didn’t even win a major until he was 30.
In 1930, Jones won the British Amateur, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur, becoming the only player to win the pre-Masters Grand Slam in the same calendar year. Had he played professionally and played for another decade or two, Jones might have been the best in history.
- 45 victories on the PGA tour
- British Open 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929 – PGA Championship 1921, 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1927
- U.S. Open 1914, 1919
Walter Hagen is one of only three golfers to have won at least 10 majors in his career. The others (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus) are always the top two in any ranking of the greatest PGA golfers of all time. But partly because he played so long ago, Hagen is often an afterthought on these lists.
Most remarkable of Hagen’s accomplishments were the rare opportunities he had to play in the majors. He never won the Masters because it was not founded until 1934, when he was past his prime. In addition, between 1915 and 1919 (ages 23 to 27 for Hagen), he averaged one major per year due to World War I. He played in 37 majors in all. In all, 37 majors were held between 1914 and 1929, and Hagen won 11 of them.
Although not officially considered as such, the Western Open was effectively the fourth major during Hagen’s time, as it was one of the events in which all the top golfers played. It was a tournament that Hagen won five times (1916, 1921, 1926, 1926, 1927, 1932) in his career, so some would say he actually won 16 majors.
Hagen is often credited with making professional golf what it is today, and the World Golf Hall of Fame considers him “the world’s first full-time tournament professional.” Hagen is also considered the greatest match-play golfer in history, having won the PGA Championship four consecutive years (1924-27) when it was a match-play event.
- 64 victories on the PGA tour
- British Open 1953 – Masters of Augusta 1951 and 1953
- PGA Championship 1946, 1948 – U.S. Open 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953
Despite a near-fatal car accident that caused him to miss the entire 1949 season, Ben Hogan dominated the PGA Tour from 1946 to 1953.
In 1946 alone, Hogan won a career-best 13 tournaments, including the first of his nine majors. From 1946 to 1948, he won a total of 30 tournaments and was named PGA Player of the Year in 1948, taking both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship that year (Hogan also won the POY in 1950, 1951 and 1953).
That was the beginning of an unreal stretch in which he won 8 of the 11 majors in which he participated and finished in the top seven in each of the other three.
Because of the accident and the fact that he did not normally play in the British Open or the PGA Championship, those 11 tournaments were spread over the course of six seasons, which somewhat obscured how incredible the feat was. But in 1953 he went 3 for 3, winning the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, the only time in his career he played in the British Open. To date, Tiger Woods is the only other golfer to have won three majors in the same calendar year.
From 1940 to 1956, Hogan played in 32 majors. (It would have been more but for World War II.) With the exception of the 1947 PGA Championship, he finished in the top 10 in each of those 32 tournaments, finished in the top four 21 times and had a total of nine victories. And in the 1942 Masters, the 1954 Masters and the 1955 U.S. Open, Hogan lost in a playoff, so he came very close to winning two majors.
Over his entire career, Hogan finished in the top 10 in 40 of 58 majors. That’s 69.0%, compared to 49.4% (38 of 77) for Woods and 44.5% (73 of 164) for Jack Nicklaus. If Hogan had played in as many tournaments as those guys, he would likely be the undisputed greatest of all time.
- 79 PGA tour victories
- British Open 2000, 2005 and 2006 – Augusta Masters 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2019
- PGA Championship 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007 – U.S. Open 2000, 2002 and 2008
In his prime, Tiger Woods was a god among men, and it seemed only a matter of time before he obliterated all records set on the PGA Tour.
From 1997 to 2008, Woods finished in the top 30 in 44 of 46 consecutive majors, winning 14 of them. In 2000-01, he won four consecutive majors, becoming the only person to win all four titles at the same time. And that wasn’t even the most impressive stretch of his career, as Woods subsequently finished in the top four in 12 of the 14 majors he contested between 2005 and 2008, with six victories.
Woods won all 14 of his majors (at least three of each) and 65 of his 79 total PGA events before he turned 33. It got to a point where it was assumed he would win again if he was within four strokes of the lead heading into Sunday. And if he had a 54-hole lead in a major, forget it. The only question for the final 18 holes was: by how many strokes will Tiger win?
But after multiple knee and back surgeries, an infidelity scandal in 2009 and a DUI arrest in 2017, the most recent decade of Woods’ career has left us wondering what might have been.
Woods has been stuck at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open. He has posted a half-dozen top-five finishes in majors over the past decade, but that only puts him at 31 for his career, 25 shy of Nicklaus’ 56.
There are thousands (perhaps millions) of people who took to golf because of Woods. However, barring a renaissance by winning at least one more major, he will remain a distant No. 2 on the list of all-time PGA greats.
- 73 PGA tour victories
- British Open 1966, 1970 and 1978 – Masters of Augusta 1963, 1965, 1966, 1966, 1972, 1975 and 1986
- PGA Championship 1963, 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1980 – U.S. Open 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1980
Both Sam Snead and Tiger Woods ended up winning more total events on the PGA Tour than Jack Nicklaus, but the Golden Bear was a level apart in the majors. Nicklaus not only won 18 majors, but was runner-up 19 times. He won each of the majors at least three times and finished in the top two at least eight times in each.
No other golfer had more than 46 top-10 finishes, but Nicklaus was a top-10 finisher 73 times and finished in the top five 56 times. At his peak, from 1971 to 1977, Nicklaus finished in the top five in 23 of the 28 majors, including six victories.
Nicklaus’ rate of finishing in the top 10 in majors was 44.5 percent, but that’s largely because he continued to play golf long after his prime. He finished outside the top 10 in 65 of his last 72 majors.
However, between 1960 and 1982, Nicklaus played a total of 88 majors. He won 19.3% of them (17), placed in the top five 60.2% of the time (53) and finished 10th or better 75.0% of the time (66). Even in Woods’ 12-year heyday from 1998 to 2009, he only finished in the top 10 in 33 of the 48 majors (68.8%). It’s almost unfair that Nicklaus was even more consistent, and for a decade longer.