Ranking the Greatest Golfers of All Time (Harry Vardon to Tiger Woods)

Lou VozzaAnalyst INovember 14, 2008

This is the last of a series of articles in which I am trying to rank the greatest golfers of all time.  The most common method of comparison between top golfers is in number of career majors won.

Number of majors won

Jack Nicklaus.......18
Tiger Woods........14
Bobby Jones........13
Walter Hagen.......11
Ben Hogan............9
Harry Vardon.........7
Jack Nicklaus is generally considered to be the greatest golfer in history, largely based on this list.  I have suggested that this is not fair to older era golfers, mostly because they did not have the opportunity to compete in as many majors as modern players like Nicklaus and Woods. 

In my previous articles, I have discussed the careers of Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods.  I believe each of these golfers is a serious contender for Jack's title.

I have argued that rather than just counting up major titles, it is more instructive to look at their career winning percentages in majors (counting only those majors they played in during their prime winning years).  Here are the big six ranked by winning percentage.

Winning percentage in majors

Bobby Jones........44%
Tiger Woods........33%
Harry Vardon.......27%
Walter Hagen.......24%
Ben Hogan...........19%
Jack Nicklaus........16%

Career Longevity

There is another critical filter these six golfers have to pass through in order to be named the greatest golfer.  What was their career longevity in terms of winning majors?

As I discussed in detail in previous posts, Jones and Hogan fail this test.  Jones retired at the age of 28, and Hogan didn't win his first major until the age of 34. 

Unfortunately, on this basis we are also going to have to rule out Tiger Woods.  He's only 32 and even though we can be certain he won't quit like Jones, we can't just pencil him in for 13 more majors, despite his thus far picture-perfect career and impressive 33 percent winning percentage.

Vardon, Hagen, and Nicklaus are the only three golfers in history who have proven they can win majors from the ages of 20-25 until the ages of 40-45.

How can we choose between these three great champions and decide whose record is best?  Should we penalize Nicklaus and place him third based on his dramatically lower winning percentage? 

Strength of Competition

We now have to leave the cold rational world of statistics and consider a more nebulous issue: whether or not it was easier to win a major in 1925 than it was in was in 1975.

If this is true, then perhaps we are overrating the older golfers by putting too much emphasis on their winning percentages.  Did the rise in the popularity of the game over 50 years produce broader, stronger fields against which the superior golfer had to compete? 

Nicklaus tried to answer this question himself.  In his autobiography, "My Way," he says, "In 1930, there were perhaps ten golfers, pro or amateur, who might defeat Bob Jones when everything was right for them." 

And, "After my first few years as a pro, there were maybe 30 guys who could beat me if I wasn't playing my best.  If I were out there today (1996), that number would be tripled."

Jack claims that what we'll call the "depth of field" tripled between 1930 and 1970 and tripled again between 1970 and 1996.  This is not a controversial opinion.  Most golf writers agree.  It became harder to win as the game grew in the 20th Century and fields grew larger and more talented.

It's hard to imagine anyone having more credibility on this topic than Jack Nicklaus, particularly since he knew Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and may have discussed this very issue with them. 

He also continued to play on the PGA Tour throughout the '90s, so he was an eyewitness to the changes in the talent levels between 1960 and 1996.

Depth of Field (By the Numbers)

Let's assume Nicklaus (and conventional wisdom) are right and consider the implications of Jack's estimates.  Since he fortunately quantified his theory, it allows us to analyze the issue statistically.

If there were 30 players in his era who could beat him versus 10 who could beat Jones in his era, then it was three times more difficult to win in Jack's era relative to Jones' era.

Therefore, we can adjust Jones 47 percent winning percentage in order to compare it to Jack's by dividing it by three.  This makes Jones adjusted winning percentage 16 percent, exactly the same as Jack's.  

If we interpolate, we can estimate that there were about 20 players who could beat Hogan in the '50s, which is halfway between Jones and Nicklaus.  This means that in Hogan's era, it was one and half times as easy for a superstar to win a major as it was in Jack's era. 

To compare apples to apples, let's divide Hogan's percentage by 1.5.  This lowers it from 19% to 13%.  Nicklaus and Jones at 16%  come out on top.    Hagen and Vardon fare even worse than Hogan, at 9% and 8% respectively.

Ballesteros and Faldo

So far Jack's theory sounds pretty reasonable.  As one more test, let's check it against two great players from the 80's, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. 

Seve won 5 majors in 65 majors in his prime for a winning percentage of 7.6%.  Faldo won 6 majors in 81 prime career starts, which gives him an identical percentage to Ballaesteros, 7.6%.

Again, Jack states that in the 60's there were 30 players who could beat him and that tripled to 90 players by the mid-90's.  For the 80's we'll interpolate that there were 60 superstar killers in the field every time Ballesteros and Faldo entered a major. 

In order to compare the 80's to the 60's, we are going to have to increase the players winning percentage.  Because it is harder to win, their nominal winning percentages are artifically low compared to earlier golfers.

Therefore, we have to double Seve's and Faldo's winning percentage, which makes their "Nicklaus era adjusted" major winning percentage 15%.  Jack still wins at 16%. 

The system seems to work well.  I guess the premise of my article was wrong and I am forced to declare Jack Nicklaus the greatest golfer of all time.  Drumroll, please.  And the award goes to...

Tiger Woods

That's right.  You didn't think I was going to forget about Eldrick, did you?   Jack developed his theory in 1996, while Tiger was still an amateur. 

After 12 years of professional golf and 44 career major starts, he has a 33% major winning percentage.  But isn't he facing the deepest fields ever? 

According to Jack, compared to his day, there are more than three times as many potential winners lurking in Tiger's fields in every tournament. 

For Jack's theory to hold true, in order to equal Nicklaus, Tiger would only have to have a winning percentage one third that of Jack's 16%, or or just over 5%.

But Tiger has an outright major winning percentage of  an astounding 33%.  We have to more than triple his numbers to come up with a "Nicklaus-Era-Depth-Of-Field" adjusted winning percentage.  That's makes Tiger's winning percentage well over 100% for the purposes of our argument.


It's settled.  Tiger's success at winning majors is so commanding that it overwhelms any concerns about career longevity.  He could not play another tournament (because of the knee, say) and he would still be the greatest golfer of all time.

Accepting Nicklaus's own depth of field theory, here are the depth of field adjusted major winning percentages:

1. Tiger Woods   100% +
2. Jack Nicklaus  16%
3. Bobby Jones   16%
4. Ben Hogan       13%
5. Harry Vardon     9%
6. Walter Hagen    8%

What about Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen, two golfers that I suggested at the beginning of this series were perhaps better than Nicklaus?  Based on strength of field, I have to say they were not as good as the Golden Bear. 

And although Bob Jones and Ben Hogan equalled Nicklaus in winning percentage, Jack gets the nod over them based on his career longevity.  Therefore, Jack takes the no. 2 spot on a tiebreaker.

For third place, I am declaring a tie between Jones, Hogan, Vardon and Hagen.  Although Jones and Hogan have superior winning percentages, Vardon and Hagen compensate for that with the length of their career success.

Although my older era golfers could not surpass Nicklaus, I succesfully demonstrated that (by his own theory) his position versus the great golfers of the past is not nearly as dominant as his 18 major victory total normally indicates.

I also hope I was able to shed some light on these mostly forgotten champions.  It is my contention that the talent gap between them and modern players is not as great as most people think.

I will explore this idea further in my next post.


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