The 8 Best Golfers of All Time: Who Made the Cut?

The 8 Best Golfers of All Time: Who Made the Cut?

The game of golf has produced countless legends, so how will our rankings swing?
Alexis Bennett
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For over a century, athletes have been playing the beloved game of golf professionally, with hundreds of memorable careers for the history books. And among them, there’s undoubtedly a short list of players who come to mind as some of the best golfers of all time. Whether you are an avid fan or not, you've likely heard the “greatest ever” comparison between Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. The only other sports pair close to that are Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Aside from Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who else makes the list of top 8, and how many names do you recognize?

What Makes the Best, the Best?

So, what attributes or career statistics qualify a golfer for entrance into such an elite group? Depending on the era, the stats earning these players the honor of the "best ever" title can vary, sometimes vastly. One thing is certain: they are fierce competitors with an unwavering knack for winning and showing up under pressure when it matters most.

Some quick ways to climb to the top of the greatest golfers of all time list include winning a major championship, getting inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, completing the career Grand Slam by winning all four major championships, or having the most wins or major victories. But these accomplishments are not the only statistics that matter. Time spent on the Official World Golf Rankings, the number of consecutive cuts made, and the wherewithal to overcome significant adversity can also land you on this list. Keep reading for the eight best golfers of all time.

The Best Golfers Ever: Our Top 8 Picks

Of course, this list could be subjective for individual readers. There are certain stats that some might consider more important than others in ranking these players. Let's not get lost in the semantics or specifics of who belongs in what place within these rankings, but rather appreciate them for their accomplishments and contributions to the game over the years. Without further ado:

8. Sam Snead

Nickname: Slammin’ Sammy

Professional Career: 1934-1987 

Overview

Sam Snead is regarded as one of golf's most illustrious and long-serving athletes, having won championships from 1937 to 1978. Despite receiving no golf instruction, he taught himself how to play and developed one of the smoothest yet most powerful swings ever seen. Snead is famous for his straw hat and sense of humor, evident in several of his famous quotes, such as "The three things I fear most in golf are lightning, Ben Hogan, and a downhill putt."

Highlights

  • 24 holes in one (professionally) 
  • Over 140 professional victories worldwide 
  • 82 PGA Tour wins (tied with Tiger Woods for the all-time lead) 
  • 7 Major Championships
    • 3 Masters Championships
    • 3 PGA Championships
    • 1 British Open Championship 
  • The head pro at the Greenbrier Resort golf courses 
  • Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974
  • 3-time Vardon Trophy recipient (1949, 1950, and 1955)
  • Earned the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 

7. Gary Player

Nickname: The Black Knight

Professional Career: 1953-2009

Overview

Gary Player was born in South Africa and went on to become one of the world's most successful golfers. He was the third golfer in history to complete a true Grand Slam, and by 1961, Player was leading the PGA in prize money earnings. With over 165 professional wins, Player received numerous honors, including the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 for his contributions to the game, making him the tenth recipient and first international golfer to receive this award.

Highlights

  • 31 holes in one (professionally)
  • 165 professional victories worldwide
  • 24 PGA Tour wins
  • 1 career Grand Slam (1965)
  • 9 Major Championships
    • 3 Masters Championships
    • 3 British Open Championships
    • 2 PGA Championships
    • 1 US Open Championship 
  • Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 
  • Received the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, the South Africa Presidential Order of Merit in 2000, and the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.   

6. Arnold Palmer

Nickname: The King

Professional Career: 1954-2006

Overview

Arnold Palmer is one of the most well-known golfers in history, and not just for his achievements on the course. The Arnold Palmer Design Company was founded in the early 1970s and has since designed over 300 courses worldwide. He’s also widely remembered for his eponymous iced tea and lemonade beverage that’s become a staple in American culture. Palmer never achieved a Grand Slam despite 62 PGA Tour victories and 7 Major Championships, but his celebrated career still merits his spot as one of the greatest golfers of all time.

Highlights

  • 20 holes in one (professionally)
  • Over 90 professional victories worldwide
  • 62 PGA Tour Wins
  • 7 Major Championships
    • 4 Masters Championships
    • 2 British Open Championships
    • 1 US Open Championship
  • Co-founder of the Golf Channel 
  • Co-designed over 300 golf courses worldwide
    • Notable courses: Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Latrobe Country Club
  • Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009 

5. Bobby Jones

Nickname: Bonnie Bobby

Professional Career: 1923-1930

Overview

Bobby Jones may be one of the best-known golf course designers in the industry, retiring from competitive golf at the young age of 28 after winning all 13 of his major titles in an eight-year span. We say competitive golf because Jones never turned professional, making him arguably the greatest golfer not to do so. He was also one of the founders of Augusta National Golf Club and helped establish the Masters.

Highlights

  • Founded 2 historical golf courses
    • Augusta National Golf Club
    • Peachtree Golf Club
  • 1 true Grand Slam
    • Unlike the career grand slams, what is special about this one is it was accomplished in the same year, 1930. However, Amateur championships were considered in this grand slam because Jones never became a professional golfer. This was before the Masters was established, and Jones was the only player to win the pre-Masters Grand Slam. Jones was also ineligible to play in the PGA Championship due to his status as an amateur golfer.
  • 13 Major Championships
    • 4 U.S Amateur Championships
    • 1 British Amateur Championship
    • 5 US Open Championships
    • 3 British Open Championships

4. Walter Hagen

Nickname: "Father of Professional Golf"

Professional Career: 1927-1935

Overview

Walter Hagen is one of only three golfers to win at least ten major championships in their professional careers. He lives in this category with none other than our #1 Jack Nicklaus and #2 Tiger Woods.

Highlights

  • Considered the greatest match-play golfer of all time
    • Won the PGA Championship 4 years in a row when it was a match-play format
  • 45 PGA Tour Victories
  • 11 Major Championships
    • 5 PGA Championships
    • 2 US Open Championships
    • 4 British Open Championships

3. Ben Hogan

Nickname: The Hawk

Professional Career: 1938-1959

Overview

While a near-fatal car accident took away Hogan's 1949 season, that couldn’t keep him from his beloved game. Even after being in the hospital for 59 days and being told he may never walk again, let alone play golf, Hogan became the first player ever to win three majors in the same year, 1953, coming after his supposed career-ending accident. Tiger Woods is the only other player ever to win three majors in the same year, doing so in 2000.

Highlights

  • 64 total professional wins
  • 1 career Grand Slam
  • 9 Major Championships
    • 2 Masters Championships
    • 2 PGA Championships
    • 4 US Open Championships
    • 1 British Open Championship
  • 4-time PGA Player of the Year
  • 5-time PGA Tour Money Leader
  • 3-time Vardon Trophy Recipient

2. Tiger Woods

Nickname: Tiger

Professional Career: 1996 - Present

Overview

Tiger Woods is easily the most well-known golfer in the world, regardless of your familiarity with the game. Perhaps because his career flourished in the day and age of technology, people worldwide witnessed his rise from a successful amateur golfer to his decades-long dominance on the links. Woods is one of the few golfers whose following spans a multi-generational fan base. If you have ever been to a professional golf tournament with Woods in the field, you know the "Tiger effect" is a very real thing. You hear him coming before you ever see him due to the mass wave of fans following him. Rightfully so, there has yet to be a player in the game of golf with the proven work ethic that Woods has. He's a machine; there is no question why he became the household name he is today.

Highlights

  • 3 holes in one (professionally)
  • 82 PGA Tour Victories
  • 3 career Grand Slams
  • 142 consecutive cuts made
  • Lowest scoring average: Set in 2000 at 68.17
  • Official World Golf Rankings
    • Over 13 years at #1, 683 weeks (the most by any golfer and twice as many weeks as second place Greg Norman)
  • 15 Majors Championships
    • 5 Masters
    • 4 PGA Championships
    • 3 US Open Championships
    • 3 British Open Championships
  • 11-time PGA Tour Player of the Year
  • 10-time PGA Tour Money Leader
  • 9-time Vardon Trophy recipient

1. Jack Nicklaus

Nickname: Golden Bear

Professional Career: 41 years, 1962-2003

Overview

It is easy to see how the Golden Bear would be listed as the greatest of all time in the golf world. Winning 18 major titles, finishing runner-up 19 times, and coming away victorious in each one of the majors a minimum of three times, it would be hard to list anyone above Jack Nicklaus. It's hard to argue with 73 top-10 finishes and 56 top-5 finishes in major tournaments.

Highlights

  • 21 holes in one (professionally)
  • 118 total professional victories
  • 73 total PGA Tour Wins
  • 3 career Grand Slams
  • 154 consecutive Major Championship appearances
  • Official World Golf Rankings
    • McCormick's unofficial ranking listed Jack Nicklaus as No. 1 for 9 years, or 468 weeks
  • 18 Major Championships
    • 6 Masters
    • 5 PGA Championships
    • 4 US Open Championships
    • 3 British Open Championships
  • 5-time PGA Tour Player of the Year
  • 8-time PGA Tour Money Leader

Honorable Mentions

By no means is this list the final say on the "greatest of all-time golf debate." We acknowledge that the likes of Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson, and Annika Sorenstam belong in this conversation. Golf history is so rich and storied that it’s nearly impossible to confirm definitively who the best golfers of all time are–especially with extraordinary new players joining the ranks each year. 

One thing is for sure, though: if you want your name among them as a golf legend, you better get practicing!
Alexis Bennett
Updated on
Alexis is a longtime student of the game. After collegiate and professional playing careers, she spent 9 seasons coaching, most recently at a Division 1 university. In that time, she led her teams to 8 top-4 finishes in conference championships and led one player to the NCAA Regionals as an at-large bid in 2021, capping the best individual playing career in the program’s history. Now, Alexis hones her expertise as a copywriter and content marketer in the golf niche, staying tied closely to a game she’s loved her whole life.

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