Fourth of July: Power Ranking the Top 14 American Golfers
Lately, golf has been dominated by non-American players. The last American to win a major (or a Players Championship if you want to include that) was Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters.
In addition to that, the top four golfers in the world, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, and Martin Kaymer are all non-Americans.
Indeed, the game is expanding and while the Americans depth will certainly prevent them from an extended down period, it's not the home of the best in the world right now.
Don't get me wrong, I am an American and I couldn't be happier for the strong International players. They've done well, worked hard and deserve their spot at the top of the game.
Still, it's the Fourth of July, American Independence Day. So, it seems like a great idea to look at some golfers who truly define the American spirit.
To do this though, a few ground rules need to be set.
One: The player has to be American. Yeah, that may sound obvious, but there are plenty of non-American players that exemplify the American ideal.
With all due respect to them, they're eliminated from this conversation. Not because they did anything wrong, but we need to draw the line somewhere.
Two: An emphasis will be placed on modern golfers, but retired golfers aren't eliminated.
Still, this list is limited to living golfers.
With that said, honorable mention goes to Payne Stewart, whose love of the US Open and Ryder Cup would place him very high on this list.
Other than that, there are no real criteria, although good performances in the US Open and International Competitions will be heavily weighted.
Lastly, before the list gets started, realize that there is a huge pool to draw from. Narrowing that big a group to 14 golfers means that I am likely to miss a few.
If I did, feel free to exercise your First Amendment rights and voice your opinion. Let that be one of the ways that you celebrate July Fourth.
14. Lee Janzen
Craig Jones/Getty Images
Yes, I already gave Payne Stewart an honorable mention, but this is another way of getting his name in.
If Payne were alive today, he would probably be No. 2 or No. 3 on this list, absolutely no lower than that. He loved the Ryder Cup and the US Open, and both are big qualifiers.
Now, Stewart won two US Opens but was stopped short on two other occasions, 1993 and 1998. Both times, the man who kept him from winning was Lee Janzen.
That may be a soft way to qualify to by some people's standards, but not mine. Heck, two US Open titles is not a bad way to qualify for a list that has anything to do with being American, although some players with those numbers or better aren't included.
For me personally, it goes back mostly to his rivalry with Stewart. The record for most US Opens is four (more on that later). Stewart won two on his own and Janzen kept him from winning two others.
The man who kept someone from being tied for the greatest national champion of all time belongs on this list.
13. Gary McCord
David Cannon/Getty Images
How can you get any better than Gary McCord?
He wasn’t a particularly good golfer. As a matter of fact, in terms of golfing achievements, he’s by far the worst golfer on this list.
But McCord makes this cut because of his announcing career. In it, he has not been afraid to take advantage of his First Amendment rights.
If you’re new to golf, you may wonder, if McCord is on the CBS golf team, why does he not cover the Masters?
In 1994, he was critical of the way the 17th green at Augusta was set up. The powers that be didn’t like that criticism, and he hasn’t been back since.
Looking beyond all of that, his handlebar mustache is reminiscent of what you see in an old Western.
Lastly, mentioning McCord also gives me a chance to give mention to his fellow CBS commentator David Feherty.
Feherty is an American citizen but not American-born. So, he doesn't qualify for this list. Still, his devotion to the American military needs mentioning.
12. Kenny Perry
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Kenny Perry is the first of five members of the successful 2008 American Ryder Cup team to make the list.
Why not load a list like this up with members of that squad? After all, it’s been the only winning American team in that event during this century.
Perry wanted to make that team, as the event was held in Perry’s home state of Kentucky, at Valhalla.
He wanted to make that team so much that the majors weren’t his focus. Actually, he skipped the first three majors of the season and withdrew from the fourth.
He qualified for the team and had a successful run once there.
11. Boo Weekley
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Boo Weekley is the second member of the 2008 team to make the list. While there are three others to come, only Weekley and Perry are here primarily because of the 2008 Ryder Cup.
Ryder Cup Sunday is one of the most intense, pressure-packed days in golf. Well, it’s that way for everyone but Weekley.
After teeing off on the first hole, Weekley paid tribute to Kentucky’s proud horse racing tradition by riding his driver like it was a horse.
Sure, it was stupid, but it was hilarious.
In addition to being hilarious, it proved to be a successful formula. Weekley rounded out a successful week with a sound, 4-and-2 defeat of Oliver Wilson.
The Ryder Cup wasn’t the only way Boo qualified, it was just his main way on to the list
His thick Southern accent and hilarious expressions also have a lot to do with it, as he reminds us just how diverse this country is.
10. Tom Watson
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Here’s a funny thing about America. When it was fighting for independence, it was an underdog. You could even say that America (or at least the Allied Powers) was an underdog in WWII.
Since then, it’s been a world superpower.
So in other words, it’s been David and Goliath, the Jets and the Colts, Rocky and Apollo.
It’s really a unique position for one country to be in.
In golf, a close comparison can be made with Tom Watson.
The 1977 British Open at Turnberry, or the Duel in the Sun, was a 36-hole showdown between Watson and Jack Nicklaus. Even though Watson was already an accomplished player, Nicklaus was the favorite.
In 1982’s US Open at Pebble Beach, it was a rematch. Nicklaus was older and Watson was more in his prime. Plus, he started the day with a bigger lead, but on the 17th hole, it didn’t look good.
Then, Watson gave us this moment, which may be the most historic shot in tournament history.
In 2009, at 59 years old, Watson gave us a thrill when the British Open returned to Turnberry.
Until he reached the 18th green on Sunday, it looked like Watson would pull the ultimate underdog story. Unfortunately, he overcooked the green and failed to get up and down for what would have been a winning par.
His playoff loss against Stewart Cink was painful to watch, although it was nice to see Cink finally win a major.
What that did though was let a new generation of fans get to know and get behind Watson, who represents everything America should be.
9. Hal Sutton
Darren Carroll/Getty Images
Hal Sutton was one of the 1999 Ryder Cup team’s few good players before the Sunday singles session. That makes up for his captaincy of the spectacular failure known as the 2004 Ryder Cup team.
Like Weekley, Sutton’s thick Southern accent is certainly American, although they have dramatically different sounds.
But this isn’t a list about who has the best accent.
Sutton’s accent gave us this sound bite, which will stand the test of time.
But that clip only came at the end of the main round that puts Sutton here.
A case could be made that no golfer was ever better over a single season than Tiger Woods was in 2000.
So, when the final round of that year’s Players Championship started and Woods was only a shot behind Sutton, it didn’t look good for the old veteran.
Still, Sutton held Woods off, which very few players did in that era. The winning margin was only one shot, but Sutton significantly outplayed Woods over that final round.
He stood up to the fierce player and won, which is very American.
8. Ben Curtis
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Even if you’re not a golf fan, if someone asked you to give the odds of someone ranked No. 396 in the world to win a big tournament, they probably wouldn’t be very good.
They weren’t for Curtis, but he took advantage of the opportunity that he was given at the 2003 British Open.
While the players around him collapsing, Curtis stood strong, Like a Rock, if you will.
He ended up beating Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by one shot, and Tiger Woods and Davis Love III by two. All but Bjorn are major champions.
7. John Daly
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Why oh why am I including John Daly? It’s simple. My ego is telling me that people are going to accuse me of just loading this list with my favorites.
When that happens, I’ll point to Daly and that theory will be shot right down.
Actually, while I would never be mistaken for a member of the John Daly Fan Club, he has an undeniable spot here.
He was the ninth alternate at the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. He drove through the night to Indianapolis, just in case something happened.
Something did, Nick Price’s wife went into labor and Daly was the only alternate who could make the tee time.
What did he do with that opportunity? Daly shot an opening-round 69 without the benefit of a practice round, and then went on to win the whole tournament.
He took advantage of the opportunity he was given and despite having limited success in recent years, is still one of more famous (or infamous) golfers in the world.
The opportunity was there, Daly took advantage of it, and has held it ever since. He’s not my favorite golfer, but he’s living proof of what the American Dream can offer someone.
Nobody can ever take that from him, he belongs here.
6. Tiger Woods
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
America is certainly a polarizing country, now isn’t it? It’s a polarizing country within its own borders and it certainly is when you look for non-American opinions.
Tiger Woods is about as polarizing a figure as the sports world has ever known, and that was true before his Thanksgiving 2009 car accident.
On the course, what’s he done to get here on this list?
Tiger’s a three-time US Junior Amateur champion, a three-time US Amateur champion, and a three-time US Open champion. Do you notice a theme in the title of those tournaments?
He’s also been a part of every Ryder Cup team since 1997 (excluding 2008) and every Presidents Cup team since 1998.
Additionally, Woods has done a great job through his career of honoring the military, which we just saw at the AT&T National.
No, he’s not perfect, far from it. But every move the guy makes is under a microscope. When he succeeds, it becomes the greatest success of all time. When he fails, it becomes the greatest failure of all time, at least in terms of public perception.
A very similar comment could be made about the country that he calls home.
5. Phil Mickelson
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson may be the most popular golfer not named Arnold Palmer, at least with American galleries. And yes, spoiler alert, we will hear from Palmer again.
Mickelson has a way of connecting with fans that nobody going today has, not even Tiger.
First, let’s look at on-course stuff. We all struggled with him when he couldn’t win a major. 2003 featured four major winners who had never won before, and Mickelson was not one of them.
Then, the 2004 Masters came about and Mickelson provided us with this charge, and we all celebrated with him.
We’ve also seen his failures since and felt them, notably the US Open collapse in 2006.
Off of the course, we watched him in his final moments before becoming a dad for the first time, which was directly tied into losing the 1999 US Open.
We also felt his struggles when his wife and mother were diagnosed with cancer in 2009, and the subsequent “Win for the family,” as Jim Nantz put it, at the 2010 Masters.
Lefty also has the record for most second-place finishes at the US Open, with five. That’s a tournament that he wants to win more than any.
Lastly, he’s been a part of every Presidents Cup team since the event’s 1994 inception, and every Ryder Cup team since 1995.
4. Jack Nicklaus
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
We know all about Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear and likely the best of all time.
If I wrote out his achievements, we would be here all day. Instead, I am going to keep it comparatively short with him.
He qualifies because it was Nicklaus’ idea that the Ryder Cup feature players from all throughout Europe.
No, that doesn’t help the Americans (it’s actually hurt them in terms of wins and losses), but the Ryder Cup is a fantastic event that brings out a lot of American pride. Nicklaus’ idea has greatly improved the overall event.
Second, he’s also a two-time winner of the US Amateur Championship.
Last but not least, Nicklaus, along with Scotsman Willie Anderson and American’s Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones, holds the record for most US Open wins with four.
Nicklaus is the only eligible player of those four, The record for most US Opens is a big qualifier on a list that rates golfers for how definitively American they are.
3. Justin Leonard
Stephen Munday/Getty Images
Justin Leonard has enjoyed a nice career. But look at the names that surround him on this list, he certainly doesn’t stack up to them. Why is he here and why is he this high?
The 1999 Ryder Cup is the most talked about Ryder Cup in history. Heck, it’s one of the most talked about tournaments of any kind in history. That’s true regardless of where your allegiances lie.
So, when you think about that moment, what is the first thought that pops into your mind? It probably has something to do with Leonard’s 45-foot putt on the 17th hole that ended up winning the Ryder Cup for the US.
While Leonard’s been a good American player for a long time, he’s this high for that putt.
2. Arnold Palmer
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Go grab a pitcher of iced tea, a pitcher of lemonade, and a glass. Pour some of the tea and some of the lemonade in the glass and you have mixed two drinks that have a lot of Americana behind them. That drink is called an Arnold Palmer.
Sure, you probably knew that, but how cool is it to have your favorite drink named after you? Isn’t that a sign of just how American Palmer is?
Yes, it is, but it’s far from the only sign.
Palmer was not a country club kid and carried a blue-collar image with him for his entire career.
Galleries everywhere loved Palmer and continue to do so.
On a much less serious scale, his final round charges were reminiscent of old Revolutionary War charges done by the American soldiers. Yes, it’s on a much smaller scale, but we’re talking about golf.
The truth is that Palmer is the father of golf as we know it. The sport existed well before him, but he brought the big purses and big television contracts into the game.
That’s something that will be remembered for a very long time. In the same way that Babe Ruth is baseball, Arnold Palmer is golf.
1. Lee Trevino
Dave Martin/Getty Images
While he’s called the Merry Mex, Lee Trevino was born in Dallas. Most of you probably knew that, but it’s worth mentioning.
After what was said about Arnold Palmer, how can anyone possibly be ahead of him? Well, with all due respect to the King, it’s actually not that close.
Trevino, more than any golfer in the history of the game, represents the greatness that America can be.
Other golfers are on this list because they took advantage of an opportunity they were given. It may have been a small one that they turned into great success and for that, I applaud them. But Trevino wasn't even given that, not as it relates to golf.
Palmer was not a country club guy, but he was raised in golf. Trevino didn’t play golf as a kid and taught himself to play when he finally began.
Trevino recently said that when he first stepped on tour in the mid-60’s, he had no idea who Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were.
Still, he took his clearly self-made swing and became one of the best golfers in the history of the game.
Trevino had virtually nothing growing up, worked hard to support himself, worked hard at his craft, and turned it into a life of fortune and fame.
That’s the ultimate American ideal, although it obviously doesn’t always work that way.
The only golfer who really compares is Francis Ouimet. If he were alive today, he would probably be right next to Trevino on this list.