PGA Tour: The 10 Best Match Play Golfers of All-Time
With 64 of the best players in the world heading to Arizona for the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship this week, there will be a bit of a change from previous PGA Tour play.
The players have counted all of their strokes and added up all their scores thus far, but this week brings an interesting, seldom used format. This format is a test of will, a battle to beat just the one man who stands before you. This is match play.
Match play serves as an interesting twist to a sport dominated by strokes and scores. Match play is in fact so little used that the Accenture Match Play serves as the only PGA Tour event all season to use this format.
There is always a massive buzz around this week, because not only is this a World Golf Championship—a highly prestigious event—but people also get the rare opportunity to witness the beauty of match play golf.
So, with all of this excitement over match play, why is it so sparingly used?
It mainly comes down to television concerns. In stroke play, stars like Woods and Mickelson will likely air throughout the television coverage, but in a one-and-done format, they could leave early, severely depleting the television audience for the later rounds.
Also, in the last two rounds of the match play format, there are just four golfers to follow (there’s a consolation match along with the finals), forcing the viewer to wait much longer between shots than during a full-field stroke play event.
However, match play has still left its mark on the game. The PGA Championship produced great champions in this format until it switched to stroke play in 1958, and the U.S. Amateur has a history spanning over 110 years of match play excellence.
So, here is a list of the 10 greatest match play opponents of all-time. The format may be exceedingly rare, but it is still an important part of golf history.
10. Jack Nicklaus
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Before anybody freaks out, this is not a list of the greatest golfers of all-time. On that one, Nicklaus would certainly be much higher than 10.
This is a list of the best golfers in match play—a format Nicklaus seldom saw in his career. The Golden Bear came along at a time when stroke play was dominant. There was no Accenture Match Play Championship and the PGA Championship had converted to stroke play by the time Nicklaus' career took off.
With few opportunities, Nicklaus didn't have much of a chance to show off his match play prowess.
But in those rare match-play events, Nicklaus did come out to play. The golfing legend jump-started his career at the U.S. Amateur, winning the 1959 and 1961 versions of the event.
In these matches, Nicklaus proved mentally tough, finding the shots at the end to finish off his opponents. Indeed, Nicklaus nailed a clutch eight-footer for birdie to defeat Charlie Coe 1-up in the 1959 final.
Nicklaus also won the 1970 World Match Play (a 12-man tournament today called the Volvo World Match Play Championship), further proving his match play excellence when he had the chance.
Ultimately though, Nicklaus didn't play the format enough. If he had constant exposure to tournament match play, he might've finished much higher on this list, but unfortunately, nobody will ever know.
9. Byron Nelson
Little fazed Byron Nelson, whose steady demeanor kept him on course and prevented any meltdowns.
"Iron Byron," as he was known, was a stunning and consistent ball-striker who was known to hit a few flagsticks in his day. Nelson used this consistency to flourish in match play, winning two PGA Championships (match play at the time) and finishing runner-up in three others.
With his long game as good as it was, Nelson was tough to beat in a match play setting. Match play is a format based on errors, meaning if one's opponent makes few of such mistakes, it becomes rather difficult to win.
Nelson rarely made any errors, forcing opponents to play nearly flawless golf to beat him.
He may have retired young, but in his short time Nelson was one of match play's best. He has two Wanamaker Trophies to show for it, and if a couple of breaks went his way, he might've had more.
8. Sam Snead
Snead, like Nelson, was an excellent ball-striker. He could hit the ball on a string, leaving his putter little work to do to finish up the hole.
Snead used his skills to excel in the match play-oriented PGA Championship, winning the event three times and finishing runner-up twice. Snead, like Nelson, was just too consistent from tee to green to lose many matches.
Some may remember Snead as a dismal putter and wonder how he could do so well in this format with his putter as such a crutch. To be fair though, Snead wasn't a bad putter—he was by no means a wizard with the flatstick, but he could get around just fine.
It was in the twilight of his career that his putting deteriorated so bad that he desperately switched to croquet style putting and later to a side saddle style.
So, with a great swing and a decent putter for most of his career, Snead was able to defeat almost any opponent he faced. Before Snead started to look downright silly over his putts, he was a match play opponent for the ages.
7. Seve Ballesteros
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So far, it may seem like all great match play golfers are phenomenal ball-strikers who make few mistakes—but the late Seve Ballesteros certainly breaks that trend.
The Spaniard made his career off of scrambling, somehow getting out of tight situations with miraculous shots. No jam was too tough for Ballesteros, who, during the 1979 British Open (which he went on to win), famously got up and down from a parking lot!
This style was a key to his match play success. Ballesteros won five World Match Play Championships in his career, using his scrambling skills to halve or even win holes that he looked certain to lose.
Ballesteros may not have been smooth from tee to green, but his scrambling ability more than made up for that deficiency.
Without this short game magic, Ballesteros would've been doomed. But with it, he can rest in peace as one of golf's greatest match play competitors.
6. Walter Travis
The story of Walter Travis is a peculiar one.
Born in Australia and transplanted to the United States at the age of 23, Travis was an average working man, not a golfer. In fact, it would take 12 years living in the United States before Travis ever even hit a golf ball!
But Travis learned how to play the game quickly. Picking up golf in 1897, Travis made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur just two years later, and won the event in 1900.
Travis would add two more U.S. Amateur titles to his résumé in 1901 and 1903, and he became the first American (yes he was considered American) to win the British Amateur, bringing home the trophy in 1904.
The Aussie import, nicknamed "The Old Man," was never one of the game's long hitters, consistently getting out-driven by his bigger and stronger competitors. It was on the greens where he excelled.
Travis indeed did his work on the greens, using his flatstick to roll in putts that demoralized his opponents. His British Amateur victory was the greatest testament to his putting, as he defeated Britain's best with putts that were holed from seemingly any distance.
Travis was one of golf's greatest putters, but that didn't come from nowhere. He had the mental toughness to hole those putts and bury his opponents.
And with that ability he was a match play golfer for the ages.
5. Jerry Travers
Jerry Travers was in every way the golfer Walter Travis was.
Travers was a rather average ball-striker, an extraordinary putter and, most of all, one of the game's toughest minds to crack.
The rich young bachelor from New York who partied as he pleased in his free time was remarkably different on the course.
Renowned golf writer Herbert Warren Wind characterized Travers as an "icicle" on the course, referring to the ice-cold demeanor that allowed Travers to remain focused on golf and nothing else.
Travers was so enthralled in his own game that during one match against Francis Ouimet, Travers hadn't even known he had lost. Down six with six to play, Travers halved the 13th, losing the match 6&5.
However, instead of moving off the green and shaking Ouimet's hand, he moved to the next tee ready to play on. Only when he was informed by an official about the match being over did Travers realize his mistake.
Indeed, Travers used his superior mental strength to excel in match play, winning four U.S. Amateurs in his illustrious, but short career. He even got the better part of his greatest rival, knocking Travis out of a number of National Amateur tournaments to end Travis' reign, and usher in his own era of match play dominance.
If only he hadn't flamed out early, maybe Travers would have become match play's best.
4. John Ball Jr.
When asked about the most times any individual has won any single major, current or past, the majority of us say six. Whether it be Jack Nicklaus' six Masters or Harry Vardon's six Open Championships, that is, to many, the number to beat.
But, this premise is false. Unfortunately, the exploits of John Ball Jr., maybe Britain's greatest amateur, have been long forgotten.
Ball's name is almost unanimously unrecognized by today's golf fans, a tragic fate for a man who pulled off an amazing feat: winning eight British Amateur titles.
In late 19th century Britain this was no easy feat—Ball had to face and take down some of the world's best amateurs to win these titles. Yet, Ball found a way to do it, with a beautiful swing and the determination of a winner, Ball defeated Britain's best time and again, cementing his dominance in match play and in golf.
The man may be under-appreciated today, but it shouldn't take away from all that he did. Ball was an extraordinary match play golfer, winning the same major championship (played in the match play format) eight times.
This is a record that remains unbroken a whole century later. And although it took Ball a whopping 24 tries to get these eight victories, it is still one of golf's greatest accomplishments.
3. Tiger Woods
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In today's game, match play golf only has a fraction of the influence it once did.
However, don't tell Tiger Woods that. To him, match play is not only an important format, it's what started his career.
Woods proved to be an almost impossible opponent to beat, winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs before college and, even more impressively, taking home three straight U.S. Amateurs while at Stanford.
Woods had the uncanny ability to win, no matter how unlikely it seemed. He was six down with 18 to play in the 1994 U.S. Amateur final, but with a serious charge and a demoralizing (if not fortunate) birdie on 17, he effectively closed out the match and won the title.
Two years later, in the 1996 U.S. Amateur final, Woods was almost in the exact same position. Five down with 18 to play, it seemed that it was Steve Scott's time to reign, but Woods had other ideas.
Woods fought back furiously, carding four birdies and an eagle to creep to just one down with two holes to play.
On 17, he faced a 35-footer for birdie and the chance to tie. And in a major foreshadowing for the rest of his career, Woods drained the putt. He won his third straight U.S. Amateur later that day.
We have seen few competitors quite like Tiger Woods. The man has been almost impervious to pressure throughout his career, using his unmatched mental focus to hunker down and finish what he started.
Woods is one of the game's premier ball-strikers, but, more importantly, he can make the putts necessary to derail his opponents.
Along with his early Amateurs, Woods has found match play success in his professional career. He has won the WGC-Accenture Match Play three times in his career, reiterating just how dominant his match play skills can be.
Still, like Nicklaus, Woods has competed in too few match play events to have fully realized those abilities. If both men had more opportunities, they might be vying for the number one spot on this list.
2. Bobby Jones
Bobby Jones was a terror early on in his career. He had, what legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called 'the temper of a timber wolf.' And to make matters worse, Jones couldn't figure out how to win.
This changed in 1923 (seven years into his career) when Jones won his U.S. Open, his first major championship. From there on out, Jones was a terror for his opponents.
In the second part of his career, Jones knew how to finish. He won five U.S. amateurs in his career, a feat unmatched in the history of the game, and won the British Amateur in 1930, a key first step in his run to the grand slam.
Jones was a great ball-striker and could putt as well, but it was his ability to control his temper, stay calm and avoid distraction that made him great in match play. Once he controlled his emotions, he was unstoppable, winning six match play majors (and 13 overall) in just seven years.
Jones retired from the game at age 28, but it was an old 28. And in the preceding years, his match play game was so strong that it merits him the number two spot on this list.
1. Walter Hagen
Walter Hagen, one of the game's first modern-day professionals, simply brought his best when he was thrown in the match play arena.
"The Haig" lived for match play, using psychology to defeat his opponents. Hagen walked with a sense of supreme confidence in his matches and was somewhat of a showman, attributes that rattled his opponents right from the start.
Hagen's playing style also proved perfect for match play. He was never the most solid ball-striker, but he always seemed to get out of trouble. Hagen was and is one of the game's greatest scramblers and greatest putters.
This drove his opponents nuts. How could a man hit such bad shots and still come away unscathed? Even Bobby Jones couldn't handle it, once saying of Hagen, "When a man misses his drive, and then misses his second shot, and then wins the hole with a birdie—it gets my goat!"
Hagen's match play skills shined in the pros' biggest tournament, the PGA Championship. Hagen won the tournament five times in his first eight attempts, including a remarkable four consecutive victories between 1924 and 1927.
During this streak, Hagen won 22 straight matches against the country's top professionals!
As Jones' quote earlier suggests, even the game's greatest amateur was no match for Hagen. In a 1926 contest billed as "The Match of the Century," Hagen dominated Jones.
Facing off over 72 holes, Hagen was in control from the start and was 12 up with 12 to play. On the seventh green that day, Jones holed his 60-footer for birdie, in all likelihood moving the match one more hole. But Hagen, with confidence, simply smiled and said, “What do you think of that? Bob gets a half after all.”
Hagen then rolled his 20-footer for birdie and finished off the match.
Moments like these show that Hagen was the true match play master. He knew how to use the psychology of match play along with his own immense golfing skills to demoralize his opponents. His personality and golfing talent fit the format perfectly.
Maybe there are a couple of players better in stroke play, but in match play nobody can match Hagen.
In match play Hagen is, and probably always will be, the greatest.