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The 18 Best Players Ever

What you see here is my list of the top eighteen golfers of all time. The job is about as easy as comparing the new souped-up high-end golf balls. Because in the end it means comparing Hagen to Hogan and Hogan to Tiger, an enterprise that makes about as much sense as Curtis Strange's Sunday lineup in the Ryder Cup. It means trying to figure out if Young Tom Morris, playing mostly against other guys named Morris, has anything to do with Old Jack Nicklaus.

Just to end the suspense—no, Tiger Woods isn't number one. Or even number two. As much as his game gives off a beam of light, Woods isn't the best golfer of all time any more than Alex Rodriguez, who is the same age as Tiger, is the best baseball player of all time. A-Rod is a shortstop who may someday break baseball's home-run record, but he's not a lock to get there. Five years ago we all thought Ken Griffey Jr. was going to hit 800 home runs. How's Junior doing lately?

Tiger has already won thirty-four Tour titles, including eight majors. He's won three majors in a year and was halfway to the Grand Slam when he hit the third round of the 2002 British Open the way the Titanic hit an iceberg. Maybe he'll end up with twenty-five majors. Get back to me when he hits nineteen, because then I'll move him ahead of Nicklaus, but not before.

There are people who've already declared Tiger the undisputed champion of golf history. But he hasn't finished the second round of his career yet. You can declare him the winner. Not me. Enough preamble. Here's my list.

1 JACK NICKLAUS
Career victories*: 92 Majors: 18
Peak years: 1962-86

It is not just the eighteen professional majors and two U.S. Amateurs. Even with his nineteen second-place finishes in majors, Nicklaus is the greatest winner in history. He won when he was a kid: Remember Hogan saying after the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, the one Arnold Palmer finally won, that the big Ohio amateur he'd just played thirty-six holes with, twenty-year-old Jack Nicklaus, should have won by ten shots. Nicklaus won in his thirties and he won his last major, the '86 Masters, when he was forty-six. The Babe Ruth of golf took on Palmer and beat him. He beat Player and Trevino and Watson and Johnny Miller, and at the '86 Masters he beat Greg Norman and Tom Kite. He took on all comers for twenty-five years. He hit that one-iron on the seventeenth at Pebble Beach. He made that putt on number sixteen at Augusta in 1975 when he was holding off Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. He seemed to make every big putt he ever looked at.

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