ArmchairGM Wiki

If you want a barstool debate, here's a real doozy: Who are the greatest golfers of all time? At first, the answer you're likely to get probably looks a lot like this, the list of all-time career Major Championship leaders. After all, the Majors are still the measuring stick by which we compare players, the ultimate prizes in golf. But how do we deal with players who played in different eras -- is Harry Vardon really better than Arnold Palmer? And what do we do with Bobby Jones, all of whose Majors came as an amateur?

Okay, well, instead let's keep things simple and only look at the PGA Tour, where they've kept fairly meticulous records for about 70 years. Maybe we can determine the best by looking at the career PGA Tour earnings leaders; after all, the money list is the way we generally judge how well a player is performing in a given season, right? Trouble is, golf experienced as much of a financial boom during the 1990s as the other main American pro sports. Purses are larger than ever nowadays, and as a side effect the career money list is dominated by current players -- or did you think Ted Purdy was better than Jack Nicklaus?

What if we adjusted the money list, though? What if we accounted for the growth of purses on the PGA Tour, creating a sort of "inflation adjustment" for earnings so that today's average players no longer dwarf the greats of the past? All we would need to do would be to divide a player's actual earnings by the amount of money the Tour handed out per tournament, and multiply by some constant amount (for instance, the purse/tournament of the 2008 Tour). Doing that, you end up with an all-time PGA Tour earnings list that looks like this:

Sam Snead$200,865,773
Jack Nicklaus$175,089,264
Ben Hogan$160,060,367
Arnold Palmer$145,792,246
Byron Nelson$133,291,270
Billy Casper$120,367,151
Tiger Woods$117,701,914
Julius Boros$107,186,617
Lloyd Mangrum$107,109,276
Tom Watson$105,572,013

That's okay, I guess, but it has the opposite problem of the official career earnings list -- it's dominated by players who played during the 40s and 50s. In fact, by this measure the top two seasons of all time (and by a ridiculous margin) are Byron Nelson's 1944 and 1945 campaigns, during the latter of which which he famously won 18 tournaments (including 11 straight at one point). Everyone knows, though, that Nelson was able to do this because the war was raging on in Europe at the time, drawing many competitors away from golf and onto the battlefields. Certainly players like Nelson would not have been able to dominate the Tour like they did had the fields not been weakened by the conflict overseas, so we need some way to adjust for the parity (or lack thereof) of the Tour each year.

The answer, of course, lies with using the standard deviation, which is the ideal tool for our purposes because it measures the spread of a sample from the mean. In other words, the more extreme the values in a dataset are, the higher the standard deviation. To apply this to our adjusted earnings, I took the standard deviation of per-tournament earnings for all players who played 5 or more events in a season. I then adjusted the averages for players in past seasons based on whether the standard deviation was higher (easier to dominate) or lower (harder to dominate) than the 2008 PGA Tour (through the U.S. Open). The result is a new set of adjusted earnings that reward players who played on deep Tours and tempers the earnings of players who put up big numbers in easily-dominated eras.

We're not done yet, though... We still need to factor Major Championships into the formula somehow. The Champions Tour's Charles Schwab Cup hands out points based on earnings in a fashion similar to that which we're trying to accomplish, and they give double points for Major victories. While this is completely arbitrary, it has to be done, and it's not a bad way to give extra weight to the most important tournaments. So here are our top adjusted seasons in PGA Tour history:


A few caveats exist:

  • This is not a list of the 30 Best Players in PGA Tour history. It is a list of the 30 players who had the most earnings, after adjusting for era and handing out bonuses for Majors.
  • Earnings data only goes back to 1938, so any performance before that is not counted.
  • The 1943 season was thrown out completely, because no one met the 5-tournament minimum.
  • Only U.S. PGA Tour performance is counted here. No money earned on other Tours (Europe, Asia, etc.) shows up.
  • The dollar values look high because the money is bigger than ever in 2008, and the standard deviation is affected by the fact that a 5-event minimum existed even though it is only midseason. When I update these after the season, the "inflation-adjusted" numbers will look more reasonable.

Okay, so now, the Top 30 in adjusted career earnings:

1. Jack Nicklaus


Career Adjusted Earnings: $216,517,996
Career Majors: 18

5 Best Seasons:


Sorry, Tiger fans, but Jack is still the #1-ranked PGA Tour player by adjusted career earnings, and it isn't even especially close. Nicklaus threw down the equivalent of $10 million in a 2008-type season a staggering ten times in his career, winning a record 18 Majors and dominating the Tour for two full decades. He remains the gold standard for golfers, the most intense competitor in PGA Tour history and its greatest pressure player. The conventional wisdom is dead-on: Jack is the greatest golfer who ever lived. Someday, Tiger Woods might top Jack in Majors and on this list, but even after winning his 14th Major at the U.S. Open yesterday, he still has quite a way to go before becoming the GOAT.

2. Tiger Woods


Career Adjusted Earnings: $161,695,951
Career Majors: 14

5 Best Seasons:


He may not be #1 yet, but is still a testament to the greatness of Tiger Woods that he ranks this highly, this quickly. His 2000 season (3 Majors, a record $21,255,619 adjusted earnings) stands out as probably the greatest single year in PGA Tour history, and he has eclipsed $10 million adjusted in a season 9 times during his 13-year career. Passing Sam Snead as #2 earlier in the season, Tiger's 2008 actually saw his best-ever rate of earnings/tournament ($962,500), and could have been one of the best years of his illustrious career, but it was shut down prematurely because of a devastating knee injury. Let's hope he can come back 100%, because if so, Tiger passing Jack as the greatest golfer in PGA Tour history is not a question of "if", but rather of "when".

3. Sam Snead


Career Adjusted Earnings: $157,941,645
Career Majors: 7

5 Best Seasons:


In the GOAT discussion, Slammin' Sam Snead's name doesn't really come up that often... which is strange, seeing as Snead still holds the all-time record for most career PGA Tour wins (82), in addition to a host of records for PGA Tour performance at an advanced age (he was the first Tour player to shoot his age -- 67 in 1979!). Snead was a terrific natural athlete and had a beautiful, fluid swing that wouldn't look out of place on Tour today. A lot of Snead's high ranking here comes from his longevity (he played for 41 seasons), but there's nothing wrong with that -- it's a testament to the grace and natural talent of a man who stood out even alongside guys like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.

4. Arnold Palmer


Career Adjusted Earnings: $149,869,694
Career Majors: 7

5 Best Seasons:


Before Tiger & Jack, there was Arnold Palmer, a singular player whose personality and talent stood out in the age of television like no other. No one could mobilize crowds and excited galleries like the King, because you simply never knew what he was going to do next. He was a swashbuckler, nowhere near as precise a shot-maker as Hogan, Nicklaus, or Woods, but nobody (with the possible exception of Seve Ballesteros) could turn trouble into magic like Palmer. Palmer also ranks so highly because he played so many seasons (35), but he had some truly great years, including 1960 & 1962 campaigns that rank among the best ever. He may have been eclipsed by Jack Nicklaus rather abruptly in the 1960s, but for a brief time, there was no bigger golfer on earth than Arnold Palmer.

5. Tom Watson


Career Adjusted Earnings: $141,796,730
Career Majors: 8

5 Best Seasons:


Just as Jack Nicklaus' rivalry and eventual friendship with Arnold Palmer marked the passing of the torch from one era to another, Tom Watson's similar relationship with Jack represented the end of Nicklaus' dominance and the beginning of Watson's best years, a stretch that ran from the late 1970s until the early-to-mid 1980s. In 1977, Watson signaled his arrival as a threat to Jack by outdueling him at the British Open, and he would take the money crown in each of the next four seasons. In 1982, Watson's memorable U.S. Open chip-in at Pebble Beach led to 2 Majors and another of his finest seasons. Watson's peak wasn't long (1977-1982), but it was brilliant, and it represented the first time another player had successfully challenged Nicklaus' supremacy over multiple seasons.

6. Ben Hogan


Career Adjusted Earnings: $129,375,986
Career Majors: 9

5 Best Seasons:


Hogan's 1953:


For no other player can we play the "what if?" game as much as with Ben Hogan, the greatest ball-striker who ever lived. What if his career had not been interrupted by World War II? And what if he had not suffered that horrific car accident in 1949? Battered but unbowed, Hogan fought back from injuries that called into question whether he would ever be able to walk again, much less play golf, and put together one of the most courageous runs in sports history from 1950-1953. Over that span, Hogan won an astonishing 6 majors, including 3 in 1953 alone (he and Tiger Woods are the only players to accomplish that feat) -- and he would have likely won the fabled Grand Slam if not for the British Open and the PGA Championship being scheduled at the same time. If not for the unfortunate gaps in his career, Hogan would easily rank higher here, perhaps even among the Top 3.

7. Billy Casper


Career Adjusted Earnings: $123,836,268
Career Majors: 3

5 Best Seasons:


From 1965-1970, golf's "Big Three" -- that is, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, & Gary Player -- won 35 PGA Tour tournaments combined. But over that same span, one man, Billy Casper, won 23 times all by himself! All in all, Casper is 7th on the PGA Tour in all-time wins, and is easily the most underrated golfer in Tour history. A brilliant putter, Casper won 3 career Majors and paced the Tour in scoring average on 5 separate occasions. He is also one of the most prolific Ryder Cup players in history, having represented America at the event 8 times. It's a mystery why he hasn't been given more respect as a player over the years, although his bland persona and "mere" 3 Majors probably have something to do with it. Either way, you have to respect the consistency he showed over the course of his career (11 seasons with at least $5 million in adjusted earnings).

8. Tom Kite


Career Adjusted Earnings: $116,558,510
Career Majors: 1

5 Best Seasons:


Tom Kite is another player whose low Major total belies his resume as a player, because when Kite was in his prime, all he did was rack up cash in the course. He only led the Tour in earnings twice, but he was the second Tour player to crack $1 million in a season (1989, a year after Curtis Strange did it), he finished in the Top 20 in money 17 times, and he was the first player to accumulate $6 million, $7 million, $8 million, and $9 million in career earnings. He also is a good example of the benefits and drawbacks of using the money list as a standard for greatness. Kite only won 19 tournaments in his career, but he finished second 29 times and third 22 other times; he has over 200 career Top 10s to his name. Because of this consistency, he has leapfrogged many more spectacular players and landed at #8, but is it more important to actually win than consistently contend? Most people would say yes, and that's why most people would say that Kite is (perhaps dramatically) overrated here at #8.

9. Lee Trevino


Career Adjusted Earnings: $110,828,529
Career Majors: 6

5 Best Seasons:


Lee Trevino was an original in the game of golf, a self-made player who built his swing over hours and hours of practice during his childhood in Dallas. From his humble beginnings, Trevino eventually became one of the best golfers in PGA Tour history, winning 29 events and 6 Majors over the course of 26 years on tour. He finished 2nd in the U.S. Open as a rookie in 1967 and never looked back, even serving as Jack Nicklaus' chief rival for a time during the 1970s. Trevino's swing was a bit unorthodox, but it worked, and his sense of humor was refreshing in a sport known for its natural stuffiness. As a foil to the intense Nicklaus, he was the perfect star to come along when he did.

10. Gary Player


Career Adjusted Earnings: $108,124,277
Career Majors: 9

5 Best Seasons:


If we included international money won, Player would easily crack the Top 5. The immensely talented South African won at least 120 tournaments outside the United States, in addition to his 24 PGA Tour wins in America, and led the U.S. Tour in earnings in 1961, his best season by adjusted earnings. Player captured an amazing 9 Majors over the course of his career, including 3 each in The Masters and the Open Championship, and has taken advantage of his unique worldwide career to become a true international ambassador of golf and a great champion for fitness and health.

11. Vijay Singh


Career Adjusted Earnings: $107,642,603
Career Majors: 3

5 Best Seasons:


It may be hard to remember now, but for one brief, shining season, Vijay Singh was unquestionably the best golfer on the planet. The year was 2004, and Tiger Woods was going through the growing pains of a swing change that left the golf hierarchy ripe for a takeover. Going into the season, Singh was the leading candidate, having already wrested away the money title in 2003 (the first time since 1998 that someone other than Woods had won it), but no one could have imagined the season that Vijay would put up. Kicking off the season by winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Singh ended up with nine victories, 18 top-10s, and a record $10,905,166 in earnings. He was also named the PGA Tour Player of the Year and, on September 6, 2004, snapped Woods' 264-week streak atop the Official World Golf Rankings. Singh would never again recapture the highs of 2004, giving the #1 spot back to Tiger for good in April 2005, but he can look back with pride on the fact that he was the most dominant golfer on the planet, for one magical summer at least.

12. Raymond Floyd


Career Adjusted Earnings: $105,749,496
Career Majors: 4

5 Best Seasons:


A 4-time Major Champion, Raymond Floyd is now known for his intense competitiveness and his coolness under pressure. That wasn't always the case, though -- early in his career, he was criticized for excessive partying, and observers felt he wasn't getting as much out of his talent as he should. Floyd turned things around in 1969, winning three tournaments, including the PGA Championship, and would go on to win 17 more times on Tour. In addition, Floyd was a steely competitor for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, playing in the event 8 times and captaining the squad in 1989. Not bad for a guy who, in his early days on Tour, spent more time in topless bars than on the practice range.

13. Gene Littler


Career Adjusted Earnings: $103,829,706
Career Majors: 1

5 Best Seasons:


Along with Billy Casper, "Gene the Machine" Littler ranks as one of the most underrated players in the history of golf. Littler only won one Major Championship -- the 1961 U.S. Open -- but he won 28 other times on the PGA Tour, and his swing is still regarded as one of the prettiest ever to grace the links. Seriously, check out how smooth this guy's swing was... Beautiful. Littler was a 7-time Ryder Cupper, and after beating lymphatic cancer in 1972 he went on to win 5 more PGA Tour events and 8 Champions Tour events.

14. Julius Boros


Career Adjusted Earnings: $100,552,977
Career Majors: 3

5 Best Seasons:


Speaking of underrated players, Julius Boros manages to be underappreciated despite 3 Major Championships (including 2 U.S. Opens) and 18 PGA Tour wins. Maybe it's the fact that he was an easy-going guy, or that his best years were strung out over the course of 2 full decades, but Boros had moments where he was every bit as good as the best players of his day. In 2 of his Major wins, he outdueled Arnold Palmer; his final Major, the 1968 PGA Championship, came at Palmer's expense and made Boros (at age 48) the oldest player ever to win a Major, a distinction he still holds today. After retiring from the PGA Tour, Boros was also a major driving force behind the creation of the Senior PGA Tour (now known as the Champions Tour), where he won 3 times.

15. Phil Mickelson


Career Adjusted Earnings: $99,980,572
Career Majors: 3

5 Best Seasons:


Once the "BPTNWAM" (Best Player To Never Win A Major), Phil has won 3 since 2004 and could have had more, had he not collapsed twice in the final holes of the U.S. Open (2004 & 2006). As it is, Mickelson will be remembered as a player who did it his way... Wild off the tee but brilliant on and around the greens, he has won over legions of fans with his daring style of play and his "aw shucks" demeanor. And as he continues to be Tiger Woods' primary rival, you can bet the media will keep pitting the two against each other at every chance they get. Phil won't get the better of Tiger over the long run (honestly, he may never truly be more than a nuisance to the world's #1), but there's no doubt that he'll keep things interesting.

16. Hale Irwin


Career Adjusted Earnings: $98,221,591
Career Majors: 3

5 Best Seasons:


Irwin is sort of like the Charlie Ward of the PGA Tour (he was a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back with the University of Colorado, but played pro golf instead)... had Charlie Ward been one of the NBA's best players. A master of irons (especially long irons), Irwin played the game with an almost mechanical consistency, which comes as no surprise, seeing as how he won the U.S. Open three times (1974, 1979, & 1990). In fact, Irwin's most memorable moment on Tour came during that last Open triumph, when he drained a 45-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff against Mike Donald. His reaction was anything but mechanical -- he ran around like a maniac, slapping high fives with the fans -- and he eventually defeated Donald in the playoff, giving his robot-like image an extreme makeover in the process. After he retired from the PGA Tour and joined the Champions Tour, Irwin seemed to get better with age, dominating that circuit during the late 1990s and early 2000s. All in all, Irwin has established himself as one of the most talented golfers to ever play the game.

17. Davis Love III


Career Adjusted Earnings: $97,466,866
Career Majors: 1

5 Best Seasons:


Before Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were anything but precocious preteens, Davis Love III was the phenom on Tour. Blessed with an impeccable pedigree (his father Davis Love Jr. was a former Tour player and, after his playing career, one of the top teaching professionals in the country), a good amateur resume (he was a 3-time All-American at the University of North Carolina), and a textbook swing, Love III was expected to be the next big star on Tour. But while he fared reasonably well (he won THE PLAYERS in 1992 and finished in the Top 10 in money 6 times during the 1990s), he never quite got over the hump in the Majors... Until 1997, that is. Under a rainbow that seemed to signify his late father looking down from the heavens, Love III outdueled Justin Leonard to win the 1997 PGA Championship, finally getting that elusive first Major. The fact that it remains Love's only Major is a bit of a disappointment, given his talent level, but you can't deny that Love has put together a fine overall career as a PGA Tour player.

18. Greg Norman


Career Adjusted Earnings: $92,715,739
Career Majors: 2

5 Best Seasons:


Instead of focusing on all of the things Norman wasn't able to accomplish during his career -- all of the Major meltdowns, the near-misses, the crushing disappointments -- let's focus on what Norman has accomplished as a PGA Tour player. He won 20 tournaments and two British Opens. He paced the Tour in earnings three times (1986, 1990, 1995), he was the 1995 PGA Tour Player of the Year, and led the Tour in lowest scoring average three times (1989, 1990, 1994). With his prodigious length off the tee (and surprising accuracy, unlike many of today's longest hitters) great iron skills, and solid short game, Norman has to be considered one of the most complete players in golf history. Yes, he blew more Majors than probably anyone else who has ever played, but it would be unfair not to recognize at the same time that Norman was consistently one of the 3 or so best players in the world for a ten-year period of time. After leaving the Tour full-time, Norman has also become a rousing success as a businessman and course designer. So while he probably wishes he could have a do-over on some of those Majors, I would imagine Norman isn't regretting much about the way his life has turned out.

19. Lloyd Mangrum


Career Adjusted Earnings: $89,845,462
Career Majors: 1

5 Best Seasons:


Tiger Woods playing the final round of the 2008 U.S. Open on a torn ACL and fractured tibia; Ben Hogan limping through the first three legs of the Grand Slam in 1953. When it comes to courageous golf performances, these are the two you're likely to hear about first, but what about the courage and toughness shown by Lloyd Mangrum in 1946? While many of his fellow Tour pros were playing golf in the states in 1944-45, Mangrum was busy fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, receiving two Purple Hearts for the injuries he incurred in the line of duty. When he returned, he simply went out and played the best golf of his career, including his win at the 1946 U.S. Open in a playoff over Byron Nelson and Vic Ghezzi. It was Mangrum's only Major, but he also won 36 Tour events and led the Tour in money once (1951) and scoring average twice (1951, 1953). When it comes to mental and physical toughness, many others deserve be mentioned, but don't let the discussion end without Mangrum's name coming up.

20. Byron Nelson


Career Adjusted Earnings: $88,353,143
Career Majors: 5

5 Best Seasons:


Nelson, who turned pro in 1932, ends up being underrated by this list because it doesn't include seasons prior to 1938. Still, Nelson is a golf legend, the winner of 52 PGA Tour events and 5 Major Championships, and a fixture at The Masters later in his life, a living reminder of the past at an event so steeped in history. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that Nelson's spectacular 1945 season (18 wins, 11 in a row) was made possible by a depleted field due to World War II, and this is true -- in fact, the sheer ridiculousness of Nelson's 1944 & '45 seasons after just the simple "inflation" adjustment was the entire reason we added in the standard deviation adjustment in the first place. But even after making that adjustment, Nelson's 1945 still stands as the 2nd-greatest season in PGA Tour history, trailing only Tiger Woods' phenomenal 2000 campaign. War or not, Nelson's accomplishment was staggering, and the triad of Nelson, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead effectively made the PGA Tour a viable sporting venture during the pre-Palmer/Nicklaus era. One of the genuinely good guys in sports, Nelson also coached Tom Watson in the 1970s, helping him eventually overtake Nicklaus as the best player in the world. When Nelson died in 2006, he took a large piece of golf history with him, and will forever be missed for it.

The Rest of the Top 30

21. Fred Couples ($88,029,283)
22. Ben Crenshaw ($87,388,088)
23. Lanny Wadkins ($85,723,995)
24. Curtis Strange ($82,692,526)
25. Nick Price ($81,798,581)
26. Payne Stewart ($81,485,624)
27. Cary Middlecoff ($79,191,336)
28. Jimmy Demaret ($77,844,483)
29. Mark O'Meara ($77,592,986)
30. E.J. Harrison ($77,412,621)
Just missed the cut: Scott Hoch, Tom Weiskopf, Craig Stadler, Doug Ford, Mark Calcavecchia, Bruce Lietzke, Hal Sutton, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Bruce Crampton, Art Wall, Johnny Miller, Jay Haas, Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger