Top 25 Male Golfers of All-Time

Tiger Woods celebrates a birdie putt at the 2016 Hero World Challenge
Go ahead and celebrate, Tiger - you're No. 1 on our list of golf greats. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Who are the best golfers in the history of the game? We've ranked the all-time best women golfers, too, but here the focus is on the men. You know what they say about opinions: Everybody has one. What follows is our opinion about which golfers, and in which order, constitute the 25 male golfers of all-time.

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. Nicklaus won 18 majors, Woods currently has 14. Many people believe Woods can't be called the greatest ever until or unless he beats Jack's major record. But 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. But nobody does that, because other factors matter.

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 (it's not even close). 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, and Miller have said that Woods' best was better than Nicklaus' best. (Although some of them, as they got older and grumpier, walked it back.) Even Jack has tacitly acknowledged this.

(Tom Watson told a story of watching a golf tournament on TV at Nicklaus' house and seeing Woods do something spectacular. Watson said to Nicklaus, "Bear, he's the best, isn't he?" "Yeah," Nicklaus replied, according to Watson, "he's the best.")

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 our opinion, 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.

2. Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus did not dominate his contemporaries quite like Tiger dominated his during his peak, 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. He won 73 PGA Tour titles, third-best in golf history. 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'. Nobody, not even Nicklaus, has ever been as good as Woods' best.

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, Ben 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.

6. Sam Snead

For now, until or unless Woods passes him, Sam 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

Tom 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

Gary 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. Byron 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 Phil 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. He didn't win again for five years, but career win No. 43 happened in 2018.

11. Billy Casper

Billy Casper is No. 11 on this list, but he's probably No. 1 on any ranking of the most underrated golfers of all-time. He won 51 PGA Tour events in his career, most of them in the 1960s when he only had to go up against Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. Three of those wins were majors. He also ranks as one of the best Ryder Cup players ever.

12. Walter Hagen

Forty-four total wins that are now counted as PGA Tour victories (Hagen's career predated the birth of the PGA), 11 of which are majors. Those 11 wins in pro majors are third-most among all golfers, and Walter Hagen's career was almost finished before The Masters even started.

13. Lee Trevino

There is little question that Lee Trevino would be a Top 10 player all-time if not for the back problems that were exacerbated when he was struck by lightning in 1975. He still won one of his six majors after that, however. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Trevino bested Nicklaus head-to-head several times, including beating The Bear in a playoff to win the 1971 U.S. Open.

14. Harry Vardon

The first international superstar of golf and one of the most influential figures in golf history. Harry Vardon's career included six wins in the British Open, from the 1890s into the 19-teens. He played the U.S. Open only three times, winning it once, losing in a playoff once, and finishing second the third time.

15. Gene Sarazen

Gene Sarazen won his first major at age 20, and was still making news in the majors in his 70s (he made an ace at 71 in the 1973 Open Championship). He was the first golfer ever to win the "career Grand Slam" with at least one win in each of the four professional majors.

The Next 10 Greats

And here are the next 10 players in our ranking, rounding out the Top 25:

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