Ranking Golf's Greatest Major Champions

Mike DudurichContributor IJuly 21, 2013

Ranking Golf's Greatest Major Champions

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    History shows us some of golf's greats are looked at a bit differently than others, making them very, very special.

    Phil Mickelson's stunning victory in the British Open Sunday gave him five major titles and moved him into a different category of champions.

    Here's a look at 20 on the all-time list.


20. Raymond Floyd

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    Major victories: 4

    Career wins: 66

    Most impressive moment: He dominated the 1976 Masters, beating runner-up Ben Crenshaw by eight shots. He participated on seven winning Ryder Cup teams.

    Why he’s here: He's a Hall of Famer who was a fierce competitor, having become known for “the glare.”

19. Ernie Els

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    Major victories: 4

    Career wins: 66

    Most impressive moment: He is one of only six players to have won the U.S. Open and British Open twice each. Winning in three different decades is a special honor since it has only happened eight times. The others to do it? Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, Raymond Floyd, John Henry Taylor and Harry Vardon.

    Why he’s here: He’s a Hall of Famer and has the most seemingly effortless, smooth swing, prompting his nickname “The Big Easy.” He’s a great ambassador for the game.

18. Peter Thomson

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    Major victories: 5

    Career wins: 82

    Most impressive moment: His hat trick of Open Championships in 1954, 1955 and 1956 combined for his most impressive moment. From 1951 to 1971, he finished in the top 10 of the Open Championship every year but two (1964 and 1968).

    Why he’s here: He won the British Open four times in six years, including three in a row and a total of five. He also won the national championship of 10 different countries.

17. Phil Mickelson

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    Major victories: 5

    Career wins: 51

    Most impressive moment: After suffering one of the most disappointing moments of his career in the last round of the U.S. Open at Merion in June, Mickelson traveled to Scotland and won both the Scottish and the British Open.

    Why he’s here: He’s a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, keeping alive the streak of every player who won the British Open at Muirfield Golf Club being a Hall of Famer.

    He will go down in history as one of the most creative and intelligent players to ever play the game.

16. J.H. Taylor

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    Major victories: 5

    Career wins: 14

    Most impressive moment: He was the captain of Great Britain’s 1933 Ryder Cup team, which beat the United States. Taylor is the only captain in the history of the Ryder Cup on either side to have never played in the matches.

    Why he’s here: He’s a five-time British Open champion. (He was a runner-up in the U.S. Open.) He was the co-founder and the first chairman of the British Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA).

15. Byron Nelson

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    Major victories: 5

    Career wins: 52

    Most impressive moment: He had a year like no one else ever had in 1945, winning 11 straight tournaments on the way to 18 total wins.

    If that wasn’t good enough, Nelson also finished second seven times, set a mark that stood until 2000 in scoring average (68.33), fired a 62 and established a 72-hole low of 259.

    Why he’s here: He played only 11 years, from 1935 through 1946, and retired at the age of 34 to quiet years as a gentleman rancher in Texas.

    He was one of the all-time great players, but he was so much better a man. The HP Byron Nelson Championship was the first PGA Tour event named for a professional golfer.

    As a crowning bit of glory to his career, Nelson was awarded the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the USGA for distinguished sportsmanship in golf.

14. Seve Ballesteros

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    Major victories: 5

    Career wins: 91

    Most impressive moment: He won the 1984 Open Championship at St. Andrews, holing the winning putt on the final hole. He referred to the win as the “happiest moment of my whole sporting life,” as the European Ryder Cup Team website recalled after a 2012 tribute to him.

    Why he’s here: Ballesteros was the most creative player to grace professional golf for many, many years. He was aggressive and took many chances that paid off for him.

    He won the 1980 Masters, becoming the first European to win at Augusta as well as the youngest winner there at age 23.

    His 1979 win in the Open Championship made him the youngest winner of that event too.

13. Lee Trevino

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    Major victories: 6

    Career wins: 29

    Most impressive moment: The calendar year 1971 was a big one for Trevino, who won six times, including the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. At the U.S. Open, he beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff.

    Why he’s here: Trevino won the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship two times each. He won the Vardon Trophy (for lowest scoring average) five times: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1980.

12. Nick Faldo

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    Major victories: 6

    Career wins: 40

    Most impressive moment: He won back-back Masters in 1989 and 1990, both in playoffs. He beat Scott Hoch in 1989 and Raymond Floyd in 1990.

    Why he’s here: Three Open Championships and three Masters for starters. He was the No. 1 player in the world in the Official World Golf Rankings for a total of 98 weeks. He won six major titles in 64 starts.

11. Harry Vardon

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    Major victories: 7

    Career wins: 62

    Most impressive moment: Among the 62 victories in his career, he went on a fabulous streak of 14 straight. Vardon won a record six Opens between 1896 and 1914 and had one U.S. Open to his credit.

    Why he’s here: He was a dominant player in Europe in the early 1900s, becoming a successor to Young Tom Morris as a golfing superstar in Europe.

    He also is credited with popularizing a grip that eventually took his name, the Vardon Grip. He went into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 with the initial group of inductees.

10. Sam Snead

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    Major victories: 7

    Career wins: 82

    Most impressive moment: Snead had a season in 1950 unlike any other. He won 11 times in that year, the third-best total ever behind Byron Nelson, who won 18 times in 1945, and Ben Hogan, 13, in 1946.

    Why he’s here: Snead has won more professional golf tournaments than anyone in the game. He played in an era with other greats like Nelson and Hogan and still was able to dominate. He is the only player to have a top-10 finish in a major in five different decades.

9. Gene Sarazen

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    Major victories: 7

    Career wins: 39

    Most impressive moment: Sarazen was the man who hit “the shot heard ‘round the world” in the 1935 Masters.

    In the final round, Sarazen hit a four-wood 235 yards on the 15th hole, and the ball found the bottom of the cup for a double eagle. That helped him make up a three-shot deficit and win the event.

    Why he’s here: Sarazen was the man who invented the modern sand wedge and put it into play in the 1932 Open Championship. 

    He, along with Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, is part of a group to have won the career grand slam. He became known as the Little Squire and was the first honorary starter at the Masters.


8. Arnold Palmer

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    Major victories: 7

    Career wins: 62

    Most impressive moment: He was at his spectacular best in 1960 and 1962 when he won eight times in both years.

    In 1960, he won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and in 1962, he won the Masters and the Open Championship.

    Why he’s here: Because as the dominant player in the 1960s, he brought the game to the masses through television.

    He had the most dynamic personality and is still one of the most-loved figures in the game. Of course, the 62 career wins and seven major championships play a part in his being here as well.

    He has definitely earned his title as “The King.”

7. Bobby Jones

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    Major victories: 7

    Career wins: 13

    Most impressive moment: He achieved great notoriety for winning his “Grand Slam,” the U.S. Open and Open Championships and the U.S. and British Amateurs, all in a single year.

    In all, Jones played in 31 majors, earning 13 wins and finishing in the top 10 27 times.

    Why he’s here: He is the all-time greatest career amateur golfer, one of the founders and designers of Augusta National Golf Club and a co-founder of the Masters.

    From 1923-1930, he was dominant at the amateur level and did quite well in meetings with that era’s best professionals.

6. Tom Watson

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    Major victories: 8

    Career wins: 39

    Most impressive moment: After posting five wins each year from 1977 to 1979, Watson won seven times in 1980, including the Open Championship and World Series of Golf.

    Why he’s here: He led the money list on the PGA Tour five times and was the No. 1 player in the world from 1978 until 1982.

    He was one of the best links golf players ever, winning the Open Championship five times and finishing second in the 2009 Open. He also won three Senior British Open Championships in his mid-50s.

5. Gary Player

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    Major victories: 9

    Career wins: 165

    Most impressive moment: He was the only player in the 20th century to win the Open Championship in three consecutive decades.

    Player is one of only five players in history to post the career Grand Slam.

    Why he’s here: He is without a doubt one of the three greatest ambassadors the game of golf has ever had.

    He kept himself in top physical shape and still does today. Despite being a diminutive man, he put that good physical condition into every swing he made.

    He was also the best bunker player in the game.

4. Ben Hogan

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    Major victories: 9

    Career wins: 64

    Most impressive moment: After being involved in a near-fatal car accident in 1949, he won 13 more times on the PGA Tour despite limping often from those accident injuries.

    He entered five tournaments in 1951 and won three of them: the Masters, the U.S. Open and the World Championship of Golf.

    He is the only golfer in history to win the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same year, 1953.

    Why he’s here: He was a wonderful player, obviously, but despite his stoic and often snarly personality, he possessed one of the great swings in history.

    It’s a swing that’s been mimicked but never successfully copied.

3. Walter Hagen

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    Major victories: 11

    Career wins: 45

    Most impressive moment: In 1924, he won the North and South Open, the Metropolitan PGA, the Open Championship, the PGA Championship and the Princess Anne CC Open.

    Why he’s here: If it were not for the 45 career wins, that old saying about style over substance might be applicable here. Hagen had plenty of substance, but he was very stylish as well.

    As a matter of fact, he was one of the most stylish players of his time, dressing well always and traveling in a first-class manner.

    But he was a very important part of professional golf in the early 20th century, elevating the status of those who played for pay.

2. Tiger Woods

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    Major victories: 14

    Career wins: 78

    Most impressive moment: In the 2000 season, he did things that were unthinkable. He played 20 events, won nine of them, finished second four times and had 17 top-10 finishes.

    He made $9,188,321 that year. He won the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and PGA Championship.

    Why he’s here: Because he raised the game to a higher level with his athleticism, his power and his unparalled skill.

    He was the dominant player in the game for over a dozen years and is still an elite player despite not winning a major since 2008.

1. Jack Nicklaus

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    Major victories: 18

    Career wins: 73

    Most impressive moment: Winning the 1986 Masters at age 46. He started the final round four strokes behind and shot a 65, including a back-nine 30. He became the oldest Masters winner and the most prolific winner there with six in his career.

    Why he’s here: Because of what all the numbers tell you, but also because of a number you don’t hear as much: 19 runner-up finishes in major championships.

    His career has been unparalleled and most likely will never be duplicated.