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Golf Channel chooses the 16 All Time Greatest Players

January 23rd, 2013 · 8 Comments

Golf Channel is running an online tournament featuring the 16 greatest players of all time. Randall Mell wrote the article introducing the event, but I suspect that the players were ranked by the Golf Channel’s panel of “experts.”

The players appear in brackets on their site, so I shuffled them to create Golf Channel’s Top 16 list, from top to bottom. I have included my comments, which may lead to rounds of applause and/or jeers and catcalls.

1  Jack Nicklaus – With 18 majors and 19 seconds he belongs on top.
2  Tiger Woods – Would be Best Ever is definitely not there yet.
3  Ben Hogan – Solid pick for third best, record hurt by war, injury.
4  Bobby Jones – Did not play enough against pros to justify this ranking.
5  Sam Snead – Pretty swing  and longevity biases lead to overrating.
6  Arnold Palmer – Founder of GC given a boost. Top 10 maybe, but not top 6.
7  Byron Nelson – Benefits too much from the streak against weak fields.
8  Walter Hagen – Belongs in Top 5 with 11 majors – 16 with Western Open Ws.
9  Gary Player – The best world golfer ever should be 2-3 spots higher.
10  Tom Watson – The Yin: 5 Opens. The Yang: Only won 3 other majors.
11  Gene Sarazen – Third best of the 1920-30s is in about the right spot.
12  Billy Casper – Mr. Underrated has now become Mr. Way Overrated.
13  Lee Trevino – Beat Nicklaus 4 times & Open double in 1971.
14  Nick Faldo – The 6 majors we hear about endlessly warrant this spot.
15  Seve Ballesteros – Overrated because of his genius at the short game.
16  Phil Mickelson – With a better mental game he would be in the top 10.

Players to Add
Harry Vardon, the first legitimate Best Ever, won 7 majors in an era with few available starts (travel, and no PGA and Masters).
Ernie Els* (for anchored putter) belongs in the Top 16 if Mickelson does as their overall records in the majors are nearly identical, and because Els won his on four different courses compared to only two for Mickelson.

Players to Cut
Billy Casper gets cut because of his relatively poor record in the majors (he is the only player in GC’s Top 16 to win fewer than 4 majors) as he ignored the Open for so many years while playing for money first, history second.
Seve Ballesteros gets bumped because his overall record in the majors (which gives weight to wins and close finishes) is not nearly as strong as Mickelson’s and Els’.

In my opinion, the five players below should be moved two or more places up or down the rankings.

Most Overrated Players
Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Billy Casper

Most Underrated Players
Walter Hagen, Gary Player

Tags: The Game · The Majors · Tiger vs. Jack

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Jan 27, 2013 at 8:32 am

    After the first three spots, you have a lot more “overrated” than “underrated.” Eventually, these need to balance out, don’t they?

    Here’s my (somewhat tentative) top 10:

    1. Nicklaus (not sure he was better than Woods, but the 18 majors makes him “greater” for purposes of a list like this.

    2. Woods.

    3. Hogan.

    4. Bobby Jones. (Yes, he was an amateur, but he still reached mythic heights of “greatness” and was regarded as the best of his era.)

    5. Vardon.

    6. Gary Player.

    7. Hagen.

    8. Snead.

    9. Palmer.

    10. Sarazen.

    11

  • 2 Phil // Jan 27, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Hi BD, Yes, if I had listed them as overrated and underrated, but these are Most lists. Others could have been underrated, but not to the extremes as the others. I like your top 10 a lot more than GC’s – but I will continue to argue against Jones. My arguments against his position are too numerous to go into in a response like this so I’ll leave it to one for now – how can a player be fourth best when he played against the pros 1-2 times a year? With his poor health, there is no guarantee that he could have maintained his high level of play over a more Hagen-like schedule.

  • 3 BD // Jan 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I think Jones played enough to prove his achievements weren’t the product of some kind of fluke. As for whether Jones would’ve been as dominant if he had played Hagen’s schedule, why does Hagen get to set the standard as to the “right” amount of golf a player must play? There weren’t/aren’t any rules on this. Again, Jones played enough golf, against enough competition, to convince his contemporaries that he was way better than everyone else.

    Also, I would argue that the fact that Bobby frequently didnt pick up a club for months at a time shows how great he was.

  • 4 Phil // Jan 28, 2013 at 5:28 am

    BD, Longevity is a key metric when you are getting near the top of the list and are seeking separation between the greats. Jones did not have it, and there is good reason to believe that, if he kept playing, he would have been like Watson, Ballesteros, and Palmer, who stopped winning majors early, only to an even greater extent as he was 28 when he won his last. Hagen did not “get to set the standard.” Players today are roundly criticized if they don’t play enough – at least 15-20 events a year. Jones hardly played (1-2 pro majors, a couple of amateur events), and it can be argued that he (by Nicklaus, among others) benefitted from more practice time than from playing so much, especially in an era when traveling was such a draining experience. As for him resting, from what I have read in several bios, he kept his game sharp by playing causal golf most of the year, living in Atlanta’s warm weather climate.

  • 5 BD // Jan 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Obviously, we differ a lot in how we look at Jones’ unusual career. It makes for an interesting debate because, when we talk about “greatest ever,” we are generally trying to make a judgment that takes in both the player’s overall level of proficiency and his objective achievements. (Moreover, I think achievements properly includes not only the player’s record in competition, but also what he did for the game that may not be reflected in terms of trophies and titles.)

    In Jones’ case, although he didn’t tee it up as often as the pros did, and although he retired at age 28 having completed the Grand Slam, I don’t think there’s any serious doubt that he had become one of the most proficient 2-3 players of all time, if not the best ever. That was clearly the judgment of his contemporaries, and I have a hard time second-guessing them.

    In terms of his record, even if we simply ignore the U.S. and British Opens (which I think is absurd, but . . . whatever) , he won 7 majors. He won 4 out of 11 U.S. Opens, (with 4 seconds and 10/11 top 10s!). He won 3 out of the 4 British Opens he competed in.

    On top of all that, I would be hard-pressed to name any other championship-caliber player who did more for the game of golf than Bobby Jones (although Palmer comes close).

    Also, Phil, I don’t think it’s fair to say Jones didn’t have longevity. He retired at the height of his success because he had nothing left to accomplish in competitive golf. It’s not like he was injured, lost his swing or suddenly couldn’t putt anymore.

  • 6 Phil // Jan 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    There was more Jones could have done, like winning the PGA against the pros, winning the Western Open (a major at that time), and dominating over a 15 year period, not 7. The problem was that he did not have the stomach (literally and figuratively) to keep playing high pressure golf. As for doing a lot for the game, my vote goes to Hagen, who co-founded the PGA, then toured the US and the world over two decades competing and promoting the game while Jones was mostly playing golf for fun back home.

  • 7 BD // Jan 29, 2013 at 10:18 am

    How could Jones have played in the PGA as an amateur? If your argument is that he should have turned pro in order to compete against pros more often, that’s a bit extreme and basically ahistorical, IMO. Amateur golf was a big deal back then and certainly a legitimate testing ground for elite golfers who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to become professionals. It sounds like you are automatically imposing a huge retroactive penalty on amateur golfers just for being amateurs and thus taking themselves out of contention for the PGA Championship (as if that was their motivation for not turning pro!).

    You are also failing to give appropriate attention to the fact that Jones DID, in fact, compete against pros like Hagen plenty of times. In fact, Jones beat Hagen pretty consistently in the U.S. Open. There’s no question that their contemporaries judged Jones to be the better golfer and history has judged him to be the greater legend.

    Finally, it’s misleading to say Jones only dominated for 7 years: it sounds like you’re implying he became mediocre after age 28. This is why simply counting majors, for example, doesn’t tell the whole story. If we want to judge players’ careers, and to do that fairly, it is essential to consider context. Jones’ amateur status is an important piece of context. It explains, for example, why he never won a PGA Championship. The fact that Jones RETIRED at age 28 is another important piece of context. It explains why he no longer “dominated” after 1930. Obviously you are entitled to your opinion, but I would think that any serious appraisal of Bobby Jones’ career would take these well-known factors into consideration.

  • 8 Phil // Jan 29, 2013 at 11:56 am

    BD, Thank you for engaging in these debates. I wish I could go on, but at this point, I would begin to reveal research and information that I am saving for publication. Your well considered arguments are always good food for thought!

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