In compiling this list of the top 5 greatest golfers, our editors considered two factors -- a player's competitive record and his or her lasting impact on the game. For example, Greg Norman may have won fewer majors than Larry Nelson but he left a much bigger legacy than his American counterpart. This list will be frequently updated to reflect current events.
1. Jack Nicklaus
Nicknamed "The Golden Bear", the legendary American golfer is the most successful player of all time. Nicklaus won a record 18 majors, 73 PGA Tour tournaments (3rd all time) and 8 U.S. money list titles (when it was still significant). To give you a better sense of his accomplishments, the Ohio native finished runner-up in a major a whopping 19 times -- one more than his 18 major victories! Jack's amateur record was equally legendary as his professional record. The young Nicklaus won the prestigious U.S. Amateur twice and had two top-5 finishes in the U.S. Open. His biggest amateur feat came in the 1960 U.S. Open, where he briefly held a lead in the final round but had to settle for second place. Even the great amateur star Tiger Woods could only muster a T22 for his best major effort. Nicklaus' greatest moment came at the 1986 Masters Tournament, where the then 46-year-old emerged victorious. Jack would turn heads once again 12 years later, recording a T6 at the 1998 Masters at the age of 58.
Nicklaus' biggest impact on the game was the introduction of the power game. While he was not the first long hitter in professional golf, he was the one who put power golf on the map. As a result of his dominance, golf courses were lengthened and there has been a whole generation of power hitters. Even after he retired from competitive golf, Jack's legacy is still prevalent. Nicklaus-designed golf courses are among the best in the world; many of them have hosted and will be hosting major golf events in the future.
2. Tiger Woods
If there was one player who could challenge Nicklaus for the mantle of "the greatest of all time", it would be Woods. As of January 2014, the California native has won 14 majors, 79 PGA Tour tournaments (2nd all time) and 11 Player of the Year titles. Woods holds the record of the most weeks as the world's top ranked player (by a significant margin) and has broken countless competitive records in his career. In his peak years, Woods dominated golf courses and his opponents in a way we had not seen before. He won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 and the 2000 Open Championship by 8. Unfortunately, injuries and personal issues have negatively affected the latter years of his career. In a stretch from 2010 to 2011, Woods failed to win a PGA Tour title and performed poorly on many occasions.
While Arnold Palmer helped popularize golf, Woods brought it to the mainstream. His historic achievement as the first black American to win a major raised the sport's profile, while his talent and charisma have brought many new fans to the game. Consequently, both TV ratings and tournament purses have increased exponentially. Before Tiger, players were competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. After Tiger, players are competing for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements. Many of today's top golfers are also among the top earners in sports. There is no doubt Woods' popularity has been the primary contributor to the game's recent growth.
3. Arnold Palmer
He may not have won the most majors or the most tournaments, but the game owed much to Mr. Palmer for putting golf on the map. Nicknamed "The King", the Pennsylvania native was golf's first true superstar. Palmer's charisma and affable personality was the perfect vehicle to introduce the game of golf to the massive television audience. Called Arnie's Army, his loyal fan base provided much needed energy and excitement to the lackluster PGA Tour. If it was not for Palmer, there may not have been a Greg Norman, a Fred Couples or a Tiger Woods. He was the game's true trailblazer.
In term of competitive record, Palmer was up there with the golfing greats. The Hall of Famer won 7 majors and 62 PGA Tour tournaments. He was a four-time U.S. leading money winner and a two-time PGA Player of the Year. Palmer was also the first golfer to win the prestigious Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year honor (1960).
4. Bobby Jones
The single greatest feat in any sport is to achieve the Grand Slam, winning all the major titles in one calendar year. Very few athletes have accomplished this, as it would require beyond an extraordinary effort. Bobby Jones was the only golfer, male or female, to achieve the grand slam. The Atlanta native won all four major tournaments (U.S. Open, Open Championship, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur) in 1930. What was so stunning was the fact Jones chose to retire from competitive golf right after he accomplished this feat at the young age of 28. (He did play in the Masters until 1948 to help promote the event.) One could only wonder how many more major titles he would have won had he choose to continue his career; he was already a 13-time major winner by 1930.
Jones' biggest contribution to golf, however, would come in the form of the magnificent Augusta National Golf Club, which was founded and helped design by him. Reputed as perhaps the greatest golf course in America, the Augusta National is the exclusive host of the Masters Tournament, which was also co-founded by Jones.
5. Annika Sorenstam
No golfer has achieved more and generated more interests for the women's game than the Swede icon. In her 16-year career, Sorenstam won 72 LPGA Tour titles, 17 Ladies European Tour tournaments and 10 major championships. She was the LPGA Player of the Year on eight different occasions and was also one of Solheim Cup's most successful players. It is hard to find a milestone she failed to accomplish. Shoot a 59? She achieved this in the second round of the 2001 Standard Register. World no. 1 ranking? She was the top ranked player in the first edition of the women's rankings and held it for 60 weeks. Winning the U.S. Open? She did it three times. Sorenstam accomplished all of these during a highly competitive era, when women's golf had become a global sport. The only thing that is missing on her resume is the career grand slam, but that would be asking too much.
~Last updated on April 10, 2016.