Golf is one of the most popular sports in the world. It may not be as exciting as basketball and football, among other contact sports, but it has a thrill of its own. Being played since the 15th century, golf has shaped some of the best athletes. Not to mention, it has given birth to some of the richest and most influential sports figures.
Curious about the best golfers of all time? Keep on reading and let’s have a quick look at some of the people who shaped the global history of golf.
Table of Contents
- 1 Jack Nicklaus
- 2 Tiger Woods
- 3 Sam Snead
- 4 Arnold Palmer
- 5 Ben Hogan
- 6 Bobby Jones
- 7 Tom Watson
- 8 Gary Player
- 9 Gene Sarazen
- 10 Walter Hagen
- 11 Byron Nelson
- 12 Billy Casper
- 13 Phil Mickelson
- 14 Lee Trevino
- 15 Nick Faldo
- 16 Seve Ballesteros
- 17 Vijay Singh
- 18 Ernie Els
- 19 Rory McIlroy
- 20 Greg Norman
Also called The Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus is considered the best golfer in the world. This nickname was given by an Australian sportswriter and was also his mascot from his high school. Nicklaus made a mark not only in playing golf but also in designing golf courses and even writing a book.
Born on January 21, 1940 in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus has been playing golf since he was a kid. It is believed that he had his first round of golf when he was ten years old. He shot 51 on his first nine holes, and since then, he has been demonstrating a constant improvement in the sport. Aside from golf, he also played other sports, including basketball, baseball, and tennis.
The long and amazing professional career of Nicklaus started in 1962. He won the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Pennsylvania. What makes it more notable is that he defeated Arnold Palmer in his territory. During such time, Palmer was known as the King, so the victory of Nicklaus is a big story. In 1963, he won his first Masters in one stroke. In 1965, he won his second Masters by nine strokes.
More so, part of his achievement is being an owner of one of the largest golf design practices globally. He owns Nicklaus Designs along with his sons, and they have designed nearly 1% of the golf courses in the United States.
Professional Victories: 118
PGA Tour Wins: 73
PGA Tour Champions Wins: 10
European Tour Wins: 9
PGA Tour of Australasia Wins: 3
Mention golf legends and almost anyone will most probably have Tiger Woods on top of mind. He became more popular because of being an African American in a sport dominated by whites. More than being a golfer, he was also popular as an endorser.
A native of Cypress, California, Woods was born on December 30, 1975. Woods majored in economics at Stanford University under a golf scholarship. He had his PGA debut in 1992 and turned pro in 1996.
As one of the top golfers of all time, it is estimated that Tiger Woods earned over $120,000,000 playing golf. Off the course, however, he earned more than $1.5 billion in endorsements and appearances, as well as for golf course designs.
After winning Masters in 2001, Woods earned the recognition for being the first player to consecutively win four of the major golf tournaments – U.S. Open, British Open, Masters, and PGA Championship.
More so, he was recognized as one of the most marketable athletes in the world, especially during the first decade of his sports career. He bagged endorsements from some of the most valuable companies, including General Motors, Accenture, American Express, and Nike. His endorsement of the latter was widely credited as the fuel that lit its success in the golf niche.
Woods was also a celebrated author. He wrote How I Play Golf, a golf instruction book. Its first edition has more than 1.5 million prints. In 1997, he released his memoir entitled The 1997 Masters: My Story.
Worldwide Victories: 108
PGA Tour Wins: 82
European Tour Wins: 41
Japan Golf Tour Wins: 3
Top 10 Finishes: 199
Recognized as one of the top ten golfers of all time, Samuel Jackson Snead was admired for his perfect swing, which has been the subject of numerous imitations. He had a few nicknames, including The Long Ball Hitter from West Virginia and The Slammer. Snead started as a caddy and worked his way to the top.
Snead was from Hot Spring, Virginia where he was born on May 27, 1912. Growing up, he was a farm boy. This also explains why he always sported a straw hat and had a folksy image. He credited his athletic prowess to squirrel hunting, which is one thing he regularly did as a kid. According to Snead, this is where he got his eye for accuracy when playing golf.
Snead turned professional in 1934. He went around the United States in his second-hand car and participated in different tournaments. It did not take long before he rose to fame. Only a year after turning professional, we already won $19,334, which was enough to be recognized as the top golf money winner.
One of the events that cemented his reputation as a contender for the title best golfer in history was when he won Great Greensboro Open, not once but eight times. He was also the first player to have recorded 17 wins in one event – West Virginia Open. From Brazil to Panama, Snead has also conquered the global landscape.
Professional Victories: 165
PGA Tour Wins: 82
International Victories: 6
From being a pilot to a businessman, Palmer is a lot of things to many people. An esteemed golfer, he joins the ranks of Nicklaus, Woods, and Snead as the best golfers in history. From the Masters to PGA, he has won some of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world.
Palmer was born on September 10, 1929, in a small industrial town in Western Pennsylvania. His father, who had polio, worked at the Latrobe Country Club. Palmer would accompany his father to work, and there, he had been playing golf since he was young. He went to Wake Forest College where he has a golf scholarship. He also enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1951 to 1954.
Aside from championship trophies, Palmer is also a recipient of different prestigious awards, cementing his reputation as one of the top 10 golfers of all time. Some of the awards he received include the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2009 Congressional Gold Medal, American Golf Hall of Fame, World Golf Hall of Fame, and Sport’s Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.
He was also a celebrated businessman. He designed more than 300 golf courses. He also owns a beverage company aptly called Arnold Palmer, which is a combination of sweetened iced tea and lemonade. At one point in his life, Palmer was also in the automotive industry.
PGA Tour Wins: 62
PGA Tour Champions Wins: 10
European Tour Wins: 2
PGA Tour of Australasia Wins: 2
A man of courage and conviction – that is what Hogan is known for. His silent and aloof behavior gave the impression that he was stoic. He seldom showed emotions, and instead portrayed the image of a man who is serious about being the best golf player in the world.
Born on August 13, 1912, in Dublin, Texas, Hogan started caddying when he was only 12 years old. He was 17 years old when he turned professional. Hogan suffered from a near-death car crash. His doctor told him that he might never walk again. However, only 16 months after the accident, he won the U.S. Open in Pennsylvania.
The early years of Hogan’s careers were devastating. However, he persevered, and his efforts proved fruitful. It took almost a decade after turning pro before he had his first major win. In 1953, he won five out of six tournaments, including three Majors.
Another breakthrough in his life was when he established the Ben Hogan Company, which specializes in golf equipment. The company creates handcrafted clubs in Fort Worth, as well as golf accessories and apparel.
It was in 1946 when he had proven his right to be the greatest golfer ever. He had 13 wins in a year, including Phoenix Open, Golden State Open, Richmond Invitational, US Open Championship, Masters Tournament, and New Orleans Open.
PGA Tour Wins: 64
International Victory: 1
A lawyer by profession, Jones was one of the most legendary golfers. He was considered the most prolific amateur golfer who made it to national and international tournaments. At the height of this career from 1923 to 1930, he was playing in amateur competitions while also shocking the world as he beat some of the best professional players.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, he had a health problem when he was young and golf was recommended as a way for him to be stronger. At six years old, he was already a prodigy and won his first tournament. Jones studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, where he was also a member of the golf varsity team. During World War II, he was an officer of the US Army Air Corps.
He was 14 years old when he won his first major golf event. This was also what caught the attention of the United States Golf Association, resulting in an invitation to play at the U.S. Amateur.
One of the highlights of his career was when he won the four major tournaments in 1930 – Amateur Championship, Open Championship, US Open, and US Amateur. He also served as the team captain of the US national golf team and represented the country five times in the Walker Cup.
Aside from being a professional player, he also had instructional golf films. When he retired from competitive golf, he co-founded the Augusta National Golf Club and co-designed its golf course. He has also authored several books.
PGA Tour Wins: 9
Walker Cup Wins: 5
Known for his aggressive style, Watson dominated the world of golf from the mid-1970s to the 1980s. He was also popular for his longevity, showing his prowess in a professional tournament despite his old age. At the age of 59, he almost won the British Open, which would have made him the oldest man to win such a tournament.
One of the best old-school golfers, Watson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He learned golf when he was taught by his father at a young age. He also played it as a sport in high school. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in psychology. During his college years, he played golf and table tennis.
Starting in 1977, Watson has been recognized six times as the PGA Tour Golf Player of the Year (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984). He also leads the money list five times. However, what cemented his reputation as an icon was when he won against Nicklaus, who was ten years his senior.
Belonging to the roster of the top golfers ever, it is expected that he was a recipient of prestigious awards, including the Bob Jones Award, Old Tom Morris Award, Payne Stewart Award, Vardon Trophy, and Charles Schwab Cup. In 1988, he was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Professional Career Wins: 71
PGA Tour Wins: 39
PGA Champions Tour Wins: 14
Major Championships Wins: 8
European Tour Wins: 8
Also called The Black Knight, Player has won 167 global professional tournaments, giving him the right to be amongst the best golfers in the world. He was also one of the only five golf greats to have won the Grand Slam. More than his golfing career, he made a name as a philanthropist. Through his foundation, he was able to raise more than $62 million for the education of underprivileged children.
Born on November 1, 1935, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Player started his love for the sport playing at The Virginia Park golf course using a set of golf clubs loaned by his father. He was 14 years old when he won his first golf round. He was 17 when he turned pro.
Golf wasn’t the only thing that made Player stand-out. He also has a foundation that has already raised millions of dollars. As one of the top pro golfers, he designed more than 400 golf courses, bred more than 200 racehorses, and received numerous awards to cement his reputation as an icon. Some of the recognitions he previously received include the Sportsman of the Century Award, Hilton Hotel Lifetime Achievement Award, PGA Tour’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, where he is also currently a global ambassador. Player is also dubbed as the most traveled athlete after logging more than 26 million kilometers. Another feather in his cap was being one of the ten golfers to become an honorary member of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
International Victories: 116
PGA Tour Champions Wins: 14
Major Championships Wins: 9
Along with Logan, Player, Nicklaus, and Woods, Sarazen is one of the only five players to have won the Grand Slam – a victory on four majors. This alone already made him deserving to join the ranks of the best golf players of all time. When he retired in 1973, he left a mark as an icon when he recorded seven major championships throughout his fruitful career.
A child of impoverished Italian migrants in New York, life has not been easy for Sarazen growing up. At eight years old, he started caddying, and this was when his love for golf began. After sixth grade, he dropped out of school. At a height of 5’5”, Sarazen was amongst the shortest golf players.
Aside from winning multiple championships, Sarazen rise to the list of best golfers was also credited for the introduction of the sand wedge. He spent months perfecting its design, resulting in what he asserted to be his greatest contribution to golf. He also lobbied to enlarge the golf hole from four to eight inches, but he failed at such.
Another highlight in the career of Sarazen was when he made a hole-in-one at The Open Championship in 1973. He was 71 years old at that time. He was old, but remained one of the most recognizable professional golfers names.
In 1992, Sarazen was bestowed with the coveted Bob Jones Award. This was the highest recognition given by the United States Golf Association.
PGA Tour Wins: 38
Major Championship Wins: 7
International Victory: 1
Known for being flamboyant, Hagen was recognized as golf’s greatest showman. His self-confidence is very much evident in the way he dressed. Unsurprisingly, he also gained a reputation as one of the most stylish golfers. His panache has been greatly influential in elevating the social status of golf.
Born on December 21, 1892, in Rochester New York, Hagen was from a modest family. His father was a blacksmith. During his pre-teenage years, he worked as a caddie to earn money to support his family. Little did he know, this would be the start of his love affair for golf. During off-peak times, he would play at the Country Club of Rochester, which is where he was working. Aside from golf, he was also good at baseball.
Hagen was one of the most influential personalities in promoting golf as a professional sport. As one of the most popular golf players, he has played at more than 2,500 exhibition matches all over the world. During all these games, he insisted on being received as a gentleman, which made golf more recognized.
He was also an influential figure in the design and manufacturing of golf clubs from Wilson Sports. His work for the company matched the irons designed by Bobby Jones, who was working with Spalding at that time. From his earnings as a sportsman to everything else he does on the side, he was the first athlete to earn more than one million dollars.
PGA Tour Victories: 44
International Victories: 2
Unlike many of the most popular golfers of all time, Nelson had a brief career. Despite having a short run, he won 11 consecutive tournaments, which was more than enough to cement his reputation as an icon. At the age of 34, he retired and became a rancher. He was one of the youngest retired golfers in history.
Nelson was born in Waxahachie, Texas, but his family moved to Fort Worth when he was 11 years old. Here, he almost died of typhoid fever. He was baptized at 12 years old, and not long after that, he started working as a caddy. If there’s one common denominator among some of the most revered golfers, it would be that they worked as a caddy, which helped train them at a young age.
It was in 1932 when Nelson started his journey to being a professional golf player. As Texas was badly hit by the Great Depression, his early years were difficult. He worked hard and soon made a name for himself. In 1937, he won his first title at The Masters. After this, he won four other Major Championships.
Another notable achievement of Nelson was being included in the 13-person inaugural class to be inducted at the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He was also the recipient of the Bob Jones Award, the highest recognition bestowed by the United States Golf Association to any player.
Major Championships Wins: 5
PGA Tour Wins: 52
International Victory: 1
Known for his shy stature, Casper was one of the most underrated golfers. He was most active from 1956 to 1975. During such time, however, he was always overshadowed by his more popular counterparts known as The Big Three – Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player.
Born on June 24, 1931, Casper grew up in San Diego, California. This is also where he had his first encounter with golf as a caddie. He studied at the University of Notre Dame for one semester under a golf scholarship.
If there’s one thing that gave Casper an edge over many of his contemporaries in the golf legends list, it would be his putting skills. He has gained a reputation for his distinctive putting style. He had a pigeon-toed stance and a self-taught swing where he would slide his right foot upon impact.
Throughout his golf career, he was also bestowed several recognitions, including the PGA Distinguished Service Award, PGA Tour Player of the Year, PGA Tour Leading Money Winner, and Vardon Trophy Winner.
More so, Casper made a name as a golf course designer. Billy Casper Golf has over 150 managed or owned golf courses, making it one of the largest golf course management businesses in the US. He has also co-authored several golf books. All of these achievements gave him the right to be on the golf legends list.
PGA Tour Wins: 51
PGA Tour Champions Wins: 9
European Tour Win: 1
Known as Lefty, Mickelson made a name from the 1990s to the early 2000s when he dominated the PGA Tour. For 25 years, he was part of the top 50 Official World Golf Ranking. For more than 700 hundred weeks, he was part of the top 10. The highest ranking he reached was Top 2 at the height of his career.
Like many of the best pro golfers, Mickelson’s affinity for the game started when he was young. Even before starting school, he was already playing golf under the instruction of his father. Their backyard in San Diego served as his training ground. For college, he went to Arizona State University where he studied under a golf scholarship. He played for the NCAA and quickly became one of the favorites in amateur golf. During his college years, he won three NCAA championships, which paved way for his professional career.
When he graduated in 1992, he quickly turned pro. He did not go through the usual qualification process because of a previous win, which made him eligible for a two-year exemption. In 1993, he had his first professional victory at Torrey Pines Golf Course, which was also where he played when he was in high school.
Mickelson was also amongst the highest-paid athletes. Throughout his career as a pro golf player, it is estimated that he won more than $91 million. Most of his fortune, however, was outside of the golf course, mostly from endorsements.
PGA Tour Wins: 44
European Tour Wins: 10
PGA Tour Champions Win: 2
Amongst all self-made greatest golfers, Trevino perhaps has one of the most heart-warming stories. He grew up in a home without plumbing and electricity. He started earning money through golf by retrieving and selling lost balls. When he started playing and winning professionally, he carved his way to the top and earned more than what he has ever once dreamed of.
Trevino grew up in Dallas, Texas and has Mexican ancestry. He never met his father, so he was raised by his mother and grandfather. He started caddying full-time at 14 years old where he earned $30 a week. At that time, he was also shining shoes. At 17, he joined the United States Marine Corps. He also actively played for the golf events of the Armed Forces. In 1975, Trevino was hit by lightning while playing at the Western Open, and this has badly hurt his back.
It was in 1968 when Trevino won his first US Open, which would start his journey towards being one of the best golf legends of all time. At 28 years old, he was still a no-namer, so his win was quite a surprise for many. Three years after, he had his second victory at the US Open. In just 20 days, he also emerged victorious at the Canadian Open and British Open at Royal Birkdale, which quickly cemented his status as amongst the top golfers of all time.
PGA Tour Wins: 29
European Tour Wins: 5
PGA Tour Champions Win: 29
More than being an English professional golfer, Faldo also made a name for being a revered golf analyst and broadcaster. His insightful commentary and wit made him one of the favorites in British sports television, even if many are saying that he wasn’t charismatic enough for his job.
Faldo started playing golf when he was 14 years old, which can be considered sort of a late bloomer compared to many of the top golf players in the world. Before that, he has never once held a club. Just three years after his first golf game, he has already won an amateur tournament, and this started his colorful golf career.
One of the biggest achievements of Faldo was being the youngest player to play at the Ryder Golf Cup, wherein he participated when he was 20 years old.
The peak of Faldo’s career was from 1987 to 1995. During those years, he amassed six major championships, which include three Masters and three British Opens. From 1988 to 1993, he has been a consistent name in the top 20 of a Grand Slam event.
In 1998, he was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. As one of the most famous male golfers, he was also a recipient of different recognitions, including Personality of the Year by BBC Sports, Ambassador of Golf PGA Tour, and Knight Bachelor.
Professional Wins: 41
Major Championships: 6
PGA Tour Wins: 9
European Tour Wins: 24
Ryder Cup Appearances: 12
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Ballesteros was one of the leading sports icons. He grew up in a family of golfers, which made him learn the fundamentals of the sport at a young age. He started playing using a 3-iron given to him by his brother, and this is where he honed his shot until he made his way to the golf greats list
Born and raised in a small village in Spain, Ballesteros had five siblings. One of his siblings died young and the four others are golfers. Safe to say, golf runs in their blood. As young as 7 years old, he has already been playing golf. In 1974, at 16 years old, he turned professional.
One of the earliest and biggest achievements of Ballesteros was when he tied with Jack Nicklaus at the British Open in 1976. In the same year, he was given the PGA European Tour’s Order of Merit. Throughout his career, he received this award six times. He was also known for giving Europe its first win at the Ryder Cup, which used to be dominated by American great golfers.
European Tour Wins: 50
PGA Tour Wins: 9
Japan Golf Tour Wins: 6
Also called The Big Fijian, a reference to his size and the fact that he is from Fiji, Singh started his love for golf at a young age. His father and brothers were all playing golf, which is also what inspired him to get into the sport and influenced his destiny to become one of the best golf players.
Singh’s father was the captain of the golf club at the Nadi airport in Fiji. At 11, Singh started playing golf along with his two fathers. At 16 years old, he dropped out of school so that he can focus on playing golf. In 1992, he turned professional, and soon enough, he was playing all over the world and making a name for himself.
In 1993, he made his debut at the PGA Tour when he won the Buick Classic. This resulted in him being named the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. The following year, he had a neck and back problem. In 1995, he was back at the game and won the Buick Classic. In 2006, he was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Throughout his career, he earned more than $50 million, which made him second on the PGA Tour Career Money List.
PGA Tour Wins: 34
Major Championships Wins: 3
PGA Tour Champions Wins: 3
International Victories: 26
Known as The Big Easy, Els is a South African golfer. At a height of 6’3”, he made a mark for his towering stature, which was complemented by his signature fluid swing.
Born on October 7, 1969, Els has always been sports-minded growing up. At a young age, he played tennis, cricket, and rugby. His father was working as a truck executive at a golf course, and it was he who taught Els how to play golf. At 14 years old, he played at a scratch handicap and won at an amateur tournament in San Diego, California.
One of the biggest achievements of Els was being No. 1 in the Official World Ranking. He was awarded the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year (1994) and European Tour Player of the Year (1994, 2002, and 2003). Other recognitions he received include the Charlie Barrett Award by the Golf Writers Association of America, Jefferson Award, Golf Foundation Spirit of Golf Award, and Golf Course Designer of the Year.
Aside from playing golf, he has also made a name for designing golf courses. More so, he was known as a philanthropist. In 1999, he established The Els and Fancourt Foundation, which helped youth from underprivileged families to reach their full potential playing golf. His son has autism, so he and his wife were also actively supporting organizations that are devoted to such a condition. His philanthropy also helped him make a name as amongst the best pro golf players.
Professional Victories: 72
European Tour Wins: 24
PGA Tour Wins: 19
Sunshine Tour Wins: 17
McIlroy has an organic golfing story. Like most of the famous pro golfers in this list, he started playing golf when he was young under the instruction of his father. He asked his father almost every day to take him to the Hollywood Golf Club. At seven years old, he became the youngest member of the latter, which also became his home golf course.
His father was a golfer himself, and this played a huge role in the development of McIlroy’s love for the sport. To support the golf development of their only son, his parents worked extra hard. When he was nine years old, he won the Under-10 World Championship in Florida, which started his colorful life as a golfer.
At 15 years old, McIlroy was a member of the team that represented Europe in the Ryder Cup, which was held in Ohio in 2004. In 2005, he built a name for himself when he became the youngest player to win both the Irish Close Championship and the West of Ireland Championship. In 2007, he was part of the Great Britain and Ireland national team to have competed at the Walker Cup. He was also the youngest player to have a European Tour card.
PGA Tour Wins: 18
European Tour Wins: 14
Asian Tour Wins: 1
From the 1980s to the 1990s, Norman was recognized as one of the greatest golf players. His charisma and aggressiveness gave him the nickname The Great White Shark. While he initially excelled in contact sports, such as rugby and football, he started playing golf at the age of 15, which was quite older compared to most of the best golfers of all time.
Born in Queensland, Australia, Norman was already in his teenage years when he learned playing golf. He started caddying at the Virginia Golf Club in Brisbane. It took him 18 months to go from a scratch handicap to a 27 handicap.
Winning more than 90 tournaments globally, there’s no doubt that Norman is a league of his own. He held the top position at the world golf rankings for 331 weeks, which is the second-longest in history. In 2001, he was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has also been bestowed with other awards, such as Byron Nelson Award, Arnold Palmer Award, and Vardon Trophy.
More than being an esteemed golfer, Norman was also a successful businessman. He founded the Greg Norman Company. From wine to real estate his business has diverse products and services. Like other top golf players, he also ventured into golf course design.
PGA Tour Wins: 20
European Tour Wins: 16
PGA Tour of Australia Wins: 35
The best golfers of all time have amassed millions of dollars in the duration of their career. Aside from playing in professional tournaments, they also made a name in designing golf courses and writing books, among other things. From Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, the names mentioned above are the crème de la crème. They serve as great inspirations to anyone who would like to make it big playing golf!