Artificial Intelligence vs. Subjective Human Analysis
The GOAT(s) debate in the golf world will never be settled so long as the game continues to evolve. Beyond hard numbers, comparing different eras is a murky situation. Who had the toughest competition, should a dominate run outweigh longevity, and how much stock should you put in the player’s contribution to the game are just a few characteristics a computer likely won’t consider. That’s where the human element comes in play.
The first pass at creating a “Greatest” list…We threw our own logic out the window and asked AI to rank the Top 10 Golfers of all time. Here is what it came up with compared to Balls & Bogeys editor’s take on the all-time greats (below)
NOTE: What we asked the computer: Rank the Top 10 Professional Golfers of All Time factoring in career wins, Major championships and contribution to golf.
And the computer selects…
Gene Sarazen | AI Rank: No. 10
- Sarazen won 39 PGA Tour titles in his career, including seven Major Championships. He is perhaps best known for his “shot heard round the world” at the 1935 Masters.
Phil Mickelson | AI Rank: No. 9
- Mickelson has won 45 PGA Tour titles and 10 European Tour titles in his career, including five Major Championships. He is known for his aggressive style of play, and is one of the few golfers to have won Major Championships in three different decades. Mickelson is also known for his philanthropy, and has donated millions of dollars to charity throughout his career.
He’s also a dick.
Tom Watson | AI Rank: No. 8
- Watson won 39 PGA Tour titles and 14 European Tour titles in his career, including eight Major Championships. He is best known for his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus, with the two players often battling it out in Major Championships. Watson also captained the US team in the Ryder Cup in 1993, leading them to victory at The Belfry.
Gary Player | AI Rank: No. 7
- Player has won 24 PGA Tour titles and 22 European Tour titles in his career, including nine Major Championships. He is one of only five golfers to have won all four Major Championships. Player was known for his rigorous fitness regimen, and continued to compete at the highest level into his 70s.
Bobby Jones | AI Rank: No. 6
- Jones is one of the greatest amateur golfers of all time, winning 13 Major Championships (7 amateur and 6 professional) before retiring at the age of 28. He was the first golfer to win the Grand Slam of golf in a single year and was instrumental in founding the Masters Tournament in 1934.
Sam Snead | AI Rank: No. 5
- Snead won 82 PGA Tour titles in his career, including seven Major Championships. He is the oldest golfer to have won a Major Championship, winning the 1965 PGA Championship at the age of 52. Snead was also known for his unique swing, which he referred to as a “squash shot.”
Arnold Palmer | AI Rank: No. 4
- Palmer won 62 PGA Tour titles in his career, including seven Major Championships. He is widely credited with popularizing golf in the 1960s, known as “Arnie’s Army” following him across the course. Palmer was one of the first golfers to attract endorsements, paving the way for the modern era of professional golf.
Ben Hogan | AI Rank: No. 3
- Hogan is one of only five golfers to have won all four Major Championships, with 64 PGA Tour titles to his name. His career was interrupted by a near-fatal car accident in 1949, but he went on to win six of his nine Major titles after the accident. Hogan is widely regarded as one of the greatest ball strikers in the history of golf, and his swing is still studied by golfers today.
Jack Nicklaus | AI Rank: No. 2
- Nicklaus is widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time, with 73 PGA Tour titles and 10 European Tour titles to his name. He holds the record for the most Major Championships won, with 18 victories between 1962 and 1986. Nicklaus has also won the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award five times and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
Tiger Woods | AI Rank: No. 1
- Widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time, Woods has won 82 PGA Tour titles and 41 European Tour titles in his career, including 15 Major Championships. His 1997 Masters victory by a record-breaking 12 strokes marked the beginning of a period of dominance in golf. Woods has spent the most consecutive and cumulative weeks as the world number one, and has won the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award a record eleven times.
Ok computer, we beg to differ. After careful analysis (and adding in the human element), without further ado – here’s Balls & Bogey’s Top 10 Greatest Golfers of All Time…
Walter Hagen | B&B Rank: No. 10
- The prompt should have easily put Hagen in AI’s Top 10. How did they forget a golfer that won 11 Majors (including four straight PGA Championships)? He was America’s first superstar of golf and brought publicity, prestige and BIG prize money to a sport still trying to catch on by the masses. Don’t forget, the Masters wasn’t even a tournament until he was 42. Safe to say if he got a chance to really compete, he’d have a few Green Jackets.
Sam Snead | B&B Rank: No. 9
- When you think of world-class athletes, golfers are hardly at the top of the list. Snead dominated his era and his all-time PGA Tour victories is a record that still stands today (tied with Big Cat), but No. 5 on AI’s list a bit of a stretch (even though his nickname amongst his peers was Gumby). He barely missed the career Grand Slam, finishing second in the U.S. Open three times.
Arnold Palmer | B&B Rank: No. 8
- For some, The King will always be No. 1. His charisma and dominate run in the late 50s and early 60s helped make golf what it is today. On the contrary, even with all Palmer did for the popularity of the game, for AI to put him as high as it did seems like a homer pick (computer bias/playing favoritism?). Maybe the contribution to golf was what thrusted him ahead of some other names. No career Grand Slam and a shorter Major winning window could justify him outside of the Top 5.
Annika Sorenstam | B&B Rank: No. 7
- Shame on AI for completely leaving out Annika. She won 10 Majors (completing career Grand Slam), 72 LPGA Tour events, 24 other tournaments around the world, and retired at 32 so she could start her family. Oh, and we can’t forget to mention her 59!
Byron Nelson | B&B Rank: No. 6
- 18 wins in one PGA Tour season (including 11 straight victories) and scoring records that stood for decades, Nelson set the standard for other greats to try their best to duplicate. And he retired at the ripe age of 34, which today is the prime of a golfer’s career.
Gary Player | B&B Rank: No. 5
- Underrated and underappreciated throughout his career, Player is the only non-American golfer to crack AI’s Top 10 list. But he’s far too low (or high, however you want to look at it). The career Grand Slam and success overseas is enough to put him firmly in the Top 5. Plus, AI forgot to count 100+ victories on the world circuit.
Ben Hogan | B&B Rank: No. 4
- Hogan was the best of his generation, no doubt about that. Perhaps his car accident is the biggest “what if” in golf history. Also remember, the only time he played in The Open, he was victorious. What if he had 20+ chances like most others on this list. Plus, all the Majors his missed while at WAR. We’re firm with The Hawk at No. 4.
Bobby Jones | B&B Rank: No. 3
- Do yourself a favor and go watch Bobby Jones swing videos on YouTube. Perfection. And he wasn’t even a professional (his day job was as an attorney). I mean, the guy basically played golf with a broom stick. Take a deep dive into his tournament scoring and you will see why he is easily No. 3 on our list.
Jack Nicklaus | B&B Rank: No. 2
- This is certainly debatable. The Golden Bear has the most Majors, that’s clear cut. And we must add an often-overlooked fact, he finished second 19 TIMES! Maybe it’s just a generational thing, but after watching Tiger’s career unfold, Nicklaus just wasn’t as dominant. And he rarely wore red. We love red.
Tiger Woods| B&B Rank: No. 1
- Tiger is the most talented golfer of all time, there’s no doubt about that. 18 is the magic number for Majors but he was so dominant (and feared) we agree with AI’s top spot. If he didn’t win the 2019 Masters, the crown goes to Nicklaus. Can he win again? We hope so. And that will further cement his legacy. This is why sports are so great, the GOAT debate will never cease to exist.
Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Patty Berg, Seve Ballesteros, Harry Vardon, Kathy Whitworth
The question gets asked every year, who is the next Big Three? Back in 2015, it was supposed to be Rory, Spieth and Jason Day (shoutout to JD getting back in the winner’s circle last week). Rahm and Scheffler have separated themselves during the last two-ish years and Rory still has plenty left in the tank. All three have a long way to go to crack our all-time great list, and we can’t wait to watch it unfold over the next decade.
Let the debate rage on…