Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, golf has evolved into an international sport with a huge global participation. The top professionals now enjoy fame that transcends the sport and the biggest events attract massive TV audiences.
Golf today is a multi-billion-dollar industry and, over the years, various figures have been instrumental in moving the game forward and altering perceptions of it. Here, we look at 10 of the most important figures in golf history.
Tiger Woods (1975 – )
Eldrick Tont ‘Tiger’ Woods changed the face of golf after turning professional in 1996. He became the world’s most highly paid athlete and one of the most famous people on earth. He inspired a generation of players and set new standards of excellence in the professional game.
Known for his powerful ball-striking, clinical short-game and stunning clutch putting, he’s also famed for his unrivalled focus and an uncanny ability to win, even when the chips are down. As an example, he took the 2008 U.S. Open title despite suffering from a fractured tibia.
Woods holds a myriad of records in the professional game and, with his return to competitive action this year, there’s every chance he could collect more.
Jack Nicklaus (1940 – )
“The Golden Bear” is generally regarded as the greatest golfer who ever lived. His 18 Major titles put him four ahead of his nearest rival Tiger Woods atop the all-time list.
Nicklaus claimed his first Major title in the 1962 U.S Open at the tender age of 22 and was 46 when he won his final Major in the U.S. Masters of 1986. He was also runner-up in 19 Majors and finished in the top-five an astonishing 56 times.
As a course-designer, businessman and ambassador for the sport, Jack Nicklaus has represented golf faultlessly for more than half a century.
Arnold Palmer (1929 – 2016)
Palmer did an enormous amount to boost golf’s popularity as the sport entered the “television age.” With his swashbuckling and aggressive play, he caught the public’s attention by birdying the final two holes to win the 1958 Masters.
Palmer gained huge support from the public and his fans “Arnie’s Army” cheered him on to six more Major titles and 62 PGA Tour wins. In 1961 and again in 1962, Palmer travelled to the UK and won the Open Championship.
These triumphs were pivotal in reinstating the status of the historic event. “The King” went on to establish an incredible golfing business empire and to give back enormously to the sport that made him famous.
Mark McCormack (1930 – 2003)
Mark McCormack changed the face of golf forever when he took on Arnold Palmer as his first client in 1959. Bringing Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player into his burgeoning IMG stable, McCormack was instrumental in transforming professional golf into a thriving industry through the latter part of the 20th century.
McCormack was responsible for creating the World Match Play and the Official World Golf Ranking. He established the licensing of television rights, the idea of appearance money and of merchandising. Without Mark McCormack, the professional game would be very different.
Bobby Jones (1902 – 1971)
The greatest ever amateur golfer, Jones’ brief playing career was one of glittering brilliance. In 1930, he won the U.S. and British Amateurs as well as the U.S. and British Opens, a feat referred to as the “impregnable quadrilateral” and one that will surely never be replicated.
He won the U.S Open four times and the British Open on three occasions.
Jones gave up competitive golf at the age of 28, but remained a hugely influential figure within the game.
Perhaps his most tangible contribution to the sport was his co-founding of Augusta National Golf Club and establishment of The Masters Tournament.
Walter Hagen (1892 – 1969)
The ultimate golfing showman, Walter Hagen played a key role in changing the way professional golfers were perceived by the public. Before Hagen, pros were second-class citizens. After his input, however, they were respected and revered for their skill.
Speaking at a dinner held in Hagen’s honour in 1967, Arnold Palmer said:
“If not for you Walter, this dinner would be down in the pro-shop, not in the ballroom.”
Hagen was famed for his flamboyance and bravado; never was this more evident that when he went golfing with the Prince of Wales, drinking champagne served from the back of his limousine. But thankfully he had the game to back it up, winning 11 Major titles and 75 professional tournaments in all.
Seve Ballesteros (1957 – 2011)
The Spaniard was one of the most charismatic figures in the history of professional golf. He revitalised European golfing fortunes in the 1980s, displaying cavalier play and outstanding imagination and skill. He first burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old in the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, captivating spectators with his swashbuckling and creative golf.
He didn’t win that year, but he did in 1979, 1984 and 1988. He was the first European to win The Masters in 1980 and he inspired the European Ryder Cup team to glory both as a player and then as a captain in 1997.
Tom Watson (1949 – )
A model professional, Tom Watson was a dominant force in world golf through the late 1970s and early 1980s. Between 1975 and 1983, he won eight Major championships, including five Open titles.
Watson’s rivalry with Jack Nicklaus captured the attention of golf fans globally and their most memorable encounter came at Turnberry in 1977, “The Duel in the Sun.” After 36 holes they were tied, Nicklaus finished with a brilliant 65 and a 66 but lost by one to Watson’s incredible 65, 65.
Watson almost completed the greatest ever sporting fairy-tale when he came so close to winning a sixth Open title at Turnberry in 2009 at the age of 59.
Gary Player (1935 – )
The South African has been one of golf’s most tenacious competitors through a career spanning seven decades. Only 5 feet 7 inches tall, Player was known for his exceptional work ethic, not only when it came to golfing technique but also his physical fitness and strength.
He was the first truly international golfing star, racking up an estimated 15,000,000 air miles through his career. He won 165 tournaments through his career, including nine Majors and was the first non-American to win the U.S. Masters. He also became a successful businessman and respected golf course architect.
Dr Frank Stableford (1870 – 1959)
At first glance, this might appear a strange inclusion in the list. However, Dr Frank Barney Gorton Stableford changed the way golf is played for many amateurs around the world.
Playing at Wallasey Golf Club in 1931, Stableford concocted a points-based scoring system, an alternative to simple strokeplay, designed to help the average golfer to better enjoy each round.
Today, the Stableford system is the go-to scoring system for amateurs across the globe and allows players who have a bad hole to stay in the game.