The Best and Worst Major Champion Golfers

There’s long been a debate about who the Best Golfer of All Time is, with the debate in essence coming down to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. If you are reading this, you’re likely a fan of golf and likely have an opinion on this very topic.

It’s a G.O.A.T. off … or is it?

Someone wiser than me stated that their opinion was that Tiger is the greatest golfer, but Jack is the greatest champion. And while that’s probably a bit too cute, there’s an element of truth in that. We know that Nicklaus not only has the lead in majors (18 to 15), but also in runner-up 2nd place (19 to 7) and 3rd place (9 to 4). And yes, Tiger has actually played in more majors than Jack did. So, there’s that math. And always, in this debate the level of competition comes into play.

But, is Nicklaus the GREATEST Major Champion of all time? Is there a way to figure this out?

And if we can…who is the WORST Major Champion of all time?

This involved a cumbersome amount of data collection, and honestly, it yielded enough things I found interesting that we’re not keeping this to a single post. So THIS post is about the process, and subsequent posts will aim to answer one of the two above questions.

Here then, the “rules of the road”:

  1. I took a players record in every major they played as a professional. This probably hurt one or two golfers who did well as amateurs but it leveled the playing field.
  2. I included their scores up until the age of 45 UNLESS they did well after that. For instance, Jack winning the Masters at age 46 was included. But, if I wanted to include Gary Player’s 2nd place at the PGA at age 48, I’d need to include his performances at age 46 and 47 as well. This almost never benefitted the golfer, but when it did, I included it because it’s impressive.
  3. When a player missed the cut, was DQ’ed or WD, I put their score in as 70. You gotta draw a line somewhere.
  4. To be fair, there were some events where a player made the cut, but finished lower than 70. For these, I made their scores 70, because it didn’t seem fair to score them worse than someone who missed the cut. Please note that in no way would this have heavily influenced the overall scores.
  5. The PGA was a match play event until 1958, and it’s hard to really get those scores accurate. It almost certainly benefits the golfers who played before this, but again, you decide for yourself.
  6. In this same vein, other things like The Masters didn’t exist until 1934, and Americans rarely played The Open or vice-versa until the middle of the last century. I can’t do anything about this, but any objective analysis is going to be weighted to folks who played in every event. Apologies to Mr. Harry Vardon.

As an ancillary component to this, I’m also going to give an award to each golfer who is the “best” at a given Major tournament. Sample size is relevant here – so the fact that Ben Hogan played The Open once, and won it, is insanely impressive (especially when you know it was at Carnoustie) but that would be less impressive than another golfer who played in 20 such events and had great success.

The “American Triumvirate” of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead will all feature prominently in this discussion.

Similarly, when we get to the worst major golfer – clearly, I’m not going to count a pro who has played in a few of these and never done much. For one, that’s not much fun but more importantly, it’s worth seeing who has had success, who some folks think are great – Hall of Fame worthy (if they’re not already in there) but who actually might not be as great as we think.

So there. That’s the tease.

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