As we enter Masters week at Augusta National, where the greats of the game are celebrated to a degree unmatched at any other major championship, it seems like a good time to examine the best who have ever teed it up, and see where they stand in relation to each other. Because Bobby Jones never competed as a professional, he is not included here—but feel free to place him among the top five, as you see fit. We have also included a group of top active PGA Tour players to see where they currently rate among the all-time greats, and consider their chances of joining golfs elite.
Because the major championships are the most demanding tests of golf with the deepest fields, the majors are given the most weight in our ratings, followed by tour wins, major runner-up, top 5 and top 10 finishes, as well as worldwide wins (wins on other tours, such as the European and Asian tours). Golf clubs and courses have evolved dramatically over the past century, so it is our view that the best way to evaluate a player is by his record against the other tour professionals at the time he was active—without consideration to scoring average, driving distance, etc.
It is no surprise that Jack Nicklaus is at the top, followed closely by Tiger. Sam Snead rounds out the big three, with a wide margin between them and number four (Ben Hogan). Both Hogan and Snead’s ratings are negatively affected by World War II, when the majors (and all PGA events) were put on hold—while each was in his prime. Also, following the war, American golf dominated the international scene, with the U.S. winning six of the seven Ryder Cups played between 1947 and 1959 in overwhelming fashion, led by Hogan and Snead. With world-wide travel being a challenge, and neither feeling they needed to prove anything by competing at The Open (then known as The British Open), they pretty much ignored it—although they each made the trip once during that time (and both won—Snead by four shots in ’46 and Hogan by four in ’53). Snead played the British Open two more times later in his career, recording a T6 in 1962 at fifty years old. In addition, the ratings for Walter Hagan and Gene Sarazen are negatively affected because the Masters wasn’t founded until 1934, when Hagen was 42 years old and Sarazen was 34. Field depth and competition level also affect ratings and ranking, and this is addressed in the wrap-up.
The Chase: Tiger and Phil
If Tiger returns for the Masters this week, so too will his relentless pursuit of Jack. And should he somehow pull off another eye-popping win, as he did in 2019, Tiger will move within two of Jack’s record for major championship wins. With another major victory, a few more major Top 10’s and a couple of additional regular tour victories, Tiger will definitively move past Jack as the greatest of all time. Even if he doesn’t tee it up at the Masters this year, he is obviously getting close—and that means he may be seeing Jack in the rear-view mirror by as early as next year.
Phil, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent from the Masters this week. While it is not likely that Mickelson can reach Palmer and Player, he can most certainly add to his accomplishments (as demonstrated by Phil’s win at the PGA Championship last year), and put some distance between himself and those closest to him (Walter Hagan, Tom Watson, and Byron Nelson). And when he joins Tiger for the opening ceremony on the first tee at Augusta in the distant future, the current unpleasantness will undoubtedly be forgotten.
The Current Crop
The chance that anyone currently on tour can make a run at Jack and Tiger is extremely remote—making their accomplishments all the more amazing. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are the leaders among active players, followed by Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia.
Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson
At 32 years old, Rory still has a chance to move into the top ten, but he will need to pick up his pace. His last win at a major was eight years ago, and all four of his major victories came between 2011 and 2014. If his putter were to suddenly return from the dead, however, Rory would climb the list at lightning speed—with plenty of time to get near the top.
Dustin, at 37 years old, has enough time to break into the top twenty, but the group of talented youngsters behind him will make it a tough task.
Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia
At 41 and 42 years old respectively, both Scott and Garcia appear to have enough left in the tank for a move into the top thirty. Both are fit and healthy, so if the youngsters’ edge over a bit, they should be able to take their seats.
Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose
Brooks Koepka is 31 years old, and he has ample time to muscle his way up the list. But while his record at the major championships is impressive, he will need to continue his performance at the majors while recording a significant number of additional regular tour wins along the way if he is to reach the top ten. The talent is there, but his motivation seems to be lacking when a major trophy is not on the line.
Justin Rose, at 41 years old, can still get to the top thirty–if his back can hold out for a few more years. Lately he has been getting off to fast starts, only to struggle on the back nine—an indication that the back is not so good. Justin still has that gorgeous golf swing with plenty of power, so if he can maintain his physical condition the top 30 is still within reach.
Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jason Day
Jordan Spieth, at 28 years old, has plenty of time to make a move into the top twenty, or perhaps even the top ten. Jordan will have to put his foot down hard on the accelerator, however, to make that happen. Spieth won the last of his three majors back in 2017, although he showed signs of returning to form in 2021 with a runner-up at the Open Championship and a T3 at the Masters.
Justin Thomas, also 28 years old, and with a vast amount of talent, has plenty of time to make a move as well. With only one win, a Top 5 and three Top 10’s thus far in his career at the major championships, however, Justin will need to make his presence felt at the majors in a much bigger way as he heads into his thirties.
For Jason Day, at 34 years old, the clock has begun to tick. The talent and putting stroke appear to be intact, so if he can stay healthy there is still time for him to make a move.
Jon Rham, Bryson DeChambeau and Hideki Matsuyama
At 27 years old, Jon Rham will be a force at the major championships for many years to come. Like Koepka, however, Rham will need to start packing on regular tour wins to move into the top thirty and beyond.
Bryson DeChambeau can certainly hit it, and at 28 years old a great many opportunities remain before him. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, so hopefully he can double down on his 2021 U.S. Open Championship and make a push to join the greats of the game.
With his win at the Masters in 2021, Hideki Matsuyama suddenly came back into focus as one of the top players on the PGA Tour. Having just turned 30 years old at the end of February, he’s got some time to beef up his record. Perhaps his Masters win will ignite a run?
In only two full seasons on tour, Collin Morikawa has already notched two major championships and five regular tour wins. Of all the young guns currently on tour, Collin has the best chance to make a move on Jack and Tiger. If he can maintain his current pace for the next twenty-odd years, Collin will find himself among the top five players in golf history. But both Rory and Jordan were in similar positions when they were 24 years old, and neither were able to sustain it.
First there was Snead, then Jack, and now Tiger. Will Collin be the mega-star of the next generation? We’ll just have to watch as golf history continues to unfold before us.
Nicklaus was up against Arnie, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Billy Casper. Tiger had Phil, Ernie Els, and a large cast of highly talented players to contend with. Sam Snead lost four years to the war at the height of his career (but conversely, he also chose to skip The Open throughout the ‘50s, which makes a statement about the level of competition at that time). There are other factors to consider as well, but hopefully our ratings and ranking can form a basis for debate. And we will continue to provide updates as Tiger makes his latest come-back, and the young stars seek to stake their claim among the legends of golf.