6 Most Influential Players in Golf History

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2012

6 Most Influential Players in Golf History

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    Great golfers come along every few years. Rory McIlroy is on track to join the pantheon of brilliant golfers in the game's history. However, he's a long way from becoming a dominant influence in the sport.

    Ball striking ability is just a small part of what takes a player and allows him to raise his status from dominating competitor to leading influence.

    Certainly, ability on the course is a per-requisite, but the most influential golfers must have compelling personalities or stories that draw people to them.

    The following six golfers have helped rewrite the sport's history.

Bobby Jones

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    Bobby Jones never played golf as a professional.

    He competed as an amateur and he was a lawyer by profession.

    Still, here was little doubt he was one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game. He completed golf's grand slam, winning all four majors in a single year. At the time, golf's grand slam consisted of the U.S. and British Opens, as well as the U.S. and British Amateurs.

    No golfer has ever won the grand slam in a single year. (The current grand slam consists of the Masters, the PGA as well as the U.S. and British Opens.)

    Jones retired from the game at the age of 28 following his grand slam achievement. However, he founded and designed Augusta National, the site of the Masters.

    His legacy continues to live on, more than 80 years after he last competed against the best golfers in the game.

    He is remembered with Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Red Grange as being among the most influential U.S. athletes in the first half of the 20th century.

Ben Hogan

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    Ben Hogan was one of the most competitive players in the history of the game. That became obvious when he won his first tournament in 1938 and he started to dominate the tour with his relentless drive to win.

    But what made Hogan so influential was his ability to overcome adversity. He was nearly killed in 1949 when the car he was driving collided with a Greyhound bus.

    Hogan's body was wrecked from  the accident. It seemed that it would be difficult for Hogan to regain the ability to walk. The idea of him returning to the golf tour was laughable.

    However, there was no quit in him and Hogan worked tirelessly to rehab. He was back on the tour in 1950 and he recorded his greatest victory in that season's U.S. Open.

    Hogan is considered one of the greatest golfers in the game's history and is certainly the most indomitable.

Sam Snead

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    Tiger Woods does not own the record for most wins on the PGA tour. That honor belongs to Sam Snead who won 82 tournaments during his career.

    Slammin' Sammy is considered to have one of the best swings in the history of the game.

    Snead was a remarkable athlete before he ever picked up a golf club and he used that athleticism to develop a swing that was so smooth and balanced that it became the envy of other top pros.

    Snead never won the U.S. Open—he finished second four times—but his remarkably beautiful and athletic swing made him one of the most influential players of all-time.

Arnold Palmer

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    It's very likely that Arnold Palmer was the most popular player in the game's history.

    He was a remarkable player, and his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Gary Player showed he was one of the game's greatest players.

    But more than sheer ability, Palmer's magnetic personality drew fans to the golf courses where he competed and helped golf become a great television sport.

    Palmer was known for striding up the fairway with purpose, and he would always draw loud cheers and roars from this legion of fans, known as "Arnie's Army."

    Palmer won seven majors, including four Masters titles. His excellence at Augusta helped allow that tournament to take on its larger-than-life status.

Jack Nicklaus

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    They are all chasing Jack Nicklaus. If any golfer has a hope of becoming known as the best golfer of all-time, he will have to overthrow Nicklaus.

    He is widely considered to be the game's greatest player, largely on the basis of his 18 major championships.

    However, that's just the quantitative analysis. Nicklaus also passes the eye test. Any time he walked up to the tee during the prime of his career, he was simply the man to beat. If Nicklaus played his best game, nobody was going to beat him.

    Nicklaus was not a perfect golfer. He often looked uncomfortable as he contorted his body when preparing to putt, but when he had a shot that mattered, he was always razor sharp.

    Nicklaus had remarkable distance off the tee and he combined that with sensational fairway play. When he needed to make clutch putts, he did.

    Nicklaus remains a popular and almost mythic figure in golf history. However, when he turned professional in 1961, he was not loved by the golfing public.

    Nicklaus was overweight and wore a serious demeanor and had to challenge Arnold Palmer for his status on the tour. He was not received warmly by the fans or media and some referred to him as "Fat Jack."

    Despite having to face that kind of ridicule, Nicklaus let his game speak for itself and he eventually rose to the level of golf's best player.

    He is rightly revered as one of the sport's all-time leading figures.

Tiger Woods

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    Tiger Woods stormed the world of golf like a tidal wave.

    Woods turned professional in 1996 after a brilliant college career at Stanford and joined the tour with the hype that he would become the game's next big star.

    Woods' personal magnetism was obvious every time he played in a tournament. Fans flocked to follow him around the course and television ratings skyrocketed.

    He was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1996 and he won his first major in 1997 when he dominated the Masters.

    Woods has won 14 majors and he is trying to catch Jack Nicklaus to become No. 1 in that category. He has won 74 tournaments in his career, ranking him second to Sam Snead.

    Tiger is viewed as a breakthrough player in the game's social history. For the most part, golf has been a sport dominated by white men. Woods is biracial and his success has allowed many non-whites to develop an interest in a game that they thought might have been closed to them.

    Woods had a meteoric rise to his career, but it has not been without some serious problems. Health problems, particularly a left knee injury, have kept him from competing without pain.

    He has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. His personal life became an embarrassing scandal when serial affairs were revealed and later ended his marriage.

    Woods continues to fight on and tries to bounce back from his personal ignominy and health problems.

    He remains singularly motivated to catch Nicklaus and become golf's all-time leader in majors won.