Where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson Rank Among the Greatest Golfers Ever

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2018

Where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson Rank Among the Greatest Golfers Ever

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It's the most wonderful time of the year for a golf fan.

    OK, perhaps that's a stretch. But there's a renewed interest in the game this holiday season thanks to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who will tee off on Nov. 23 in Capital One's The Match: Tiger vs. Phil.

    The pay-per-view event will go for $19.99 via providers that include B/R Live, and both competitors have said they'll donate a chunk of the $9 million winner-take-all purse to assorted charities, according to GolfChannel.com.

    The impending contest has us thinking of Woods' and Mickelson's places among the game's all-time greats, which provided the impetus for the following slideshow, which includes our picks for the top 12.

    Spoiler alert, both Woods and Mickelson are included.

    Of note: The "wins" total depends on what wins you're considering (PGA wins only or some combination of others). Here, the info comes from the World Golf Hall of Fame site.

12. Phil Mickelson

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    Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

    Wins: 52

    Majors: 5 (3 Masters; 1 British Open; 1 PGA)

    Considered a surefire star upon turning pro in 1992, it was a while before Phil Mickelson broke through to snag the title of "major champion" with a win at the Masters in 2004, but he's since won that event twice more and is three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam—something only 15 others can say.

    His 43 PGA Tour wins are ninth on the all-time list, and his career earnings have bettered $88 million, thanks in no small part to 193 top-10 finishes in 595 career events, a 32.4-percent clip.

    His most recent win, at the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship, came in March 2018 at age 47 and was his first since he captured the 2013 British Open.

11. Byron Nelson

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    Stephen Munday/Getty Images

    Wins: 64

    Majors: 5 (2 Masters; 1 U.S. Open; 2 PGAs)

    It was 73 years ago, but the stat still jumps off the page. Byron Nelson not only won 18 PGA Tour events in 1945, but captured a preposterous 11 in a row to set a standard—OK, we'll say it—that'll never be seriously approached, let alone broken.

    But it's not as if that's all "Lord Byron" accomplished. In fact, the lanky Texan was a five-time major winner and captured 52 PGA Tour events in all, good for sixth in history. He won three of the 10 majors played during the war-impacted stretch from 1940 to 1945 and was fifth or better in all but one.

    A "money player" before the term was invented, he was a top-10 finisher in 28 majors, including 21 top-fives.

10. Gene Sarazen

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    Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

    Wins: 42

    Majors: 7 (1 Masters; 2 U.S. Opens; 1 British Open; 3 PGAs)

    Gene Sarazen authored perhaps the most famous golf shot in history, the remarkable double-eagle on the par-5 15th at Augusta that helped catapult him to the 1935 Masters championship.

    But that's not all he accomplished.

    A winner for the first time at age 19, Sarazen went on to become the first winner of the career Grand Slam when he finished off that aforementioned Masters triumph, adding to a pair of U.S. Opens (1922, 1932), a British Open (1932) and three PGAs (1922, 1923, 1933). Only four players have joined the ranks in the subsequent 83 years, illustrating the enormity of the feat.

9. Walter Hagen

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    Associated Press

    Wins: 57

    Majors: 11 (2 U.S. Opens; 4 British Opens; 5 PGAs)

    When you're one of just three players to ever reach double-digit majors and the guys alongside you are named Nicklaus and Woods, you're in deservedly good company. Add to that the act that the Masters didn't begin until after Walter Hagen's prime, and it's an even more impressive feat.

    Hagen won 11 of 37 majors held from 1914 and 1929, a 29.7-percent clip that betters Tiger Woods between 1997 and 2008 (29.1 percent) and far exceeds Jack Nicklaus from 1962 to 1986 (18 percent). 

    He's labeled by the World Golf Hall of Fame as "the world's first full-time tournament professional" and was a deadly head-to-head foe, winning the PGA four straight times (1924 to 1927) when it was a match-play event.

8. Gary Player

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    Associated Press

    Wins: 163

    Majors: 9 (3 Masters; 3 British Opens; 1 U.S. Open; 2 PGAs)

    While some players are successful in their own respective backyards, Gary Player was a man for all courses in nearly all countries, winning on every continent outside of Antarctica.

    He was a major winner in his 20s, 30s and 40s—something not even Tiger Woods can say (not yet anyway)—and joins Woods and just three others as winners of the career Grand Slam.

    Still, while he was certainly a terrific player and a consistent contender, he was probably never the best in the world at any one time, which keeps him further down in the ranking than he might otherwise have reached.

7. Tom Watson

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Wins: 64

    Majors: 8 (2 Masters; 5 British Opens; 1 U.S. Open)

    The window wasn't open long, comparatively speaking, but Tom Watson was surely a superstar while it was.

    He captured the British Open five times in nine years between 1975 and 1983 and added a pair of seconds in that event in 1984 and 2009. Only two other players have ever won the same major five times. Three other majors came at the Masters (twice) and the U.S. Open, not to mention eight overall runner-up placements, and he finished in the top 10 at each major at least 10 times.

    He was PGA Player of the Year six times in eight years from 1977 to 1984 and was as good a foil as a late-prime Jack Nicklaus ever had.

6. Bobby Jones

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    Associated Press

    Wins: 33

    Majors: 7 (3 British Opens; 4 U.S. Opens)

    Different lists have him in different places, but few argue that Bobby Jones was golf's first superstar.

    His already-impressive major count jumps from seven to 13 when you consider the majors during his time included the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, which he won a combined six times in addition to the three British Opens and four U.S. Opens he also earned.

    He won all four pre-Masters majors in 1930, creating what was later termed the "Grand Slam."

    A co-founder of the Masters, too, Jones retired early at age 28, but he impacted the game beyond his years.

5. Arnold Palmer

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Wins: 93

    Majors: 7 (4 Masters; 1 U.S. Open; 2 British Opens)

    If you were a golf fan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, chances are Arnold Palmer had a bit to do with it.

    "Arnie" was responsible for packed galleries and watched televisions during that stretch in particular, when he bagged each of his seven majors—including four at the Masters—and was the initial competitive rival for a young phenom named Nicklaus.

    He also finished second in 10 more majors, including three times in 18-hole playoffs at the U.S. Open.

    Still, his impact on the game is matched by precious few, and his death in 2016 at age 87 was mourned far and wide.

4. Sam Snead

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    PGA Tour wins: 128

    Majors: 7 (3 Masters; 1 British Open; 3 PGAs)

    Sam Snead won more PGA Tour events than any player before or since, which more than backs up such a high placement on an all-time greats list.

    He garnered seven majors along the way too, and he may have won far more had he not missed many opportunities during the war years in the early 1940s. He also never won the U.S. Open in spite of reaching the top 10 no fewer than a dozen times.

    The greatness didn't fade early either, as evidenced by a tie for third at the 1974 PGA in his early 60s and his status as the oldest man to capture a PGA Tour event, at age 52 in 1965.

3. Ben Hogan

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    RH/Associated Press

    PGA Tour wins: 64

    Majors: 9 (2 Masters; 4 U.S. Opens; 1 British Open; 2 PGAs)

    Ben Hogan was the world's best player both before and after a near-fatal car wreck that cost him the 1949 season, winning three majors before and six more after. Included in that stretch was a run in which he captured eight of 11 majors he entered and finished in contention in all the others.

    Remarkably consistent, he was a top-10 finisher in 31 of 32 majors from 1940 to 1956 and earned that standing in 40 of 58 overall—or 69 percent—in his career.

    That's nearly 20 percent better than Tiger Woods and almost 25 percent superior to Jack Nicklaus.

2. Jack Nicklaus

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    Joe Benton/Associated Press

    Wins: 132

    Majors: 18 (6 Masters; 4 U.S. Opens; 3 British Opens; 5 PGAs)

    If you're judging greatness by the depth and breadth of a career, no one tops Jack Nicklaus.

    He won more PGA Tour events than all but two men and he has more major championships than any, not to mention 19 runner-up placements in those same marquee tournaments.

    Fans of a certain age recall his dominance of the 1960s and 1970s, while those a generation younger might trace their contact with the game back to the 1986 Masters, where a 46-year-old "Golden Bear" mustered the unlikeliest, and perhaps most memorable, win of his career.

    The most consistently great player who's ever lived, Nicklaus won at least twice on the PGA Tour for 17 straight years, spanning 1962 to 1978. And no list that ranks him No. 1 need apologize for it.

1. Tiger Woods

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Wins: 80

    Majors: 14 (4 Masters; 3 U.S. Opens; 3 British Opens; 4 PGAs)

    But, when it comes to one man's peak against another's, no one reaches the level of Tiger Woods.

    Not even Jack Nicklaus.

    Woods put golf on the front page of nearly every newspaper and website in America from 1997 to 2008, when he won each of his 14 career majors, a winning percentage of 29.1 across 48 tournaments with fields that included names such as Mickelson, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Davis Love III, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie.

    He's won the career Grand Slam three times over and created the "Tiger Slam" in 2000-01 when he became the reigning champion in each of the four majors, a feat never before achieved.

    No less an authority than Mickelson says it was the greatest the game's ever been played.

    "I don't think anybody today who wasn't there to witness it, and I don't think anybody before, will ever see that level of play again," Mickelson told ESPN in May. "I look at 2000 as being kind of the benchmark at the U.S. Open and being the greatest golf I've ever witnessed and I believe has ever been played."

    The remarkable run ended at the 2008 U.S. Open and has since been snuffed by injury and scandal, but Woods ended his 2018 season with the win at the Tour Championship and returned his ranking to No. 13 in the world. Perhaps then, No. 15 isn't far off. And if it occurs, it'll be the biggest sports story in years.