Top 10 Match-Play Golfers of All-Time

Sure, there's an element of luck to anyone who survives a match play event. That said, the notion that there are match-play specialists who burst through the clouds is a myth. The greatest match play competitors in history are basically the greatest golfers in history, period. Here's our take on the Top 10 Match Play Golfers of All-Time.
 

Tiger Woods, 1996
AP
Tiger Woods at the 1996 U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge Golf.

1. Tiger Woods
It's a close call over No. 2, but Woods has dominated since Day 1 in a more competitive era, when he broke through with three consecutive U.S. Juniors from '91-'93, followed up with a three-peat at the U.S. Amateur from '94-'96, plus three more wins in the WGC-Accenture event. His overall record in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup may not be extraordinary, but he's 4-1-1 in Ryder Cup singles and 5-2 in Presidents Cup singles. Toss in his 11-1 playoff record, which is stroke play but still significant because it's head-to-head play,  and you have the most intimidating mano-a-mano golfer ever.

Bobby Jones, 1927
AP
Bobby Jones at the 1927 U.S. Amateur at Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, Minn.

2. Bobby Jones
When the U.S. Amateur was every bit as prestigious as the U.S. Open during the roaring '20s, Jones won five of seven championships from 1924 through 1930, capturing the 1924 final 9 and 8 after trouncing Francis Ouimet in the semis 11 and 10. In '27 he won the final 8 and 7, in '28 it was 10 and 9 after a 13-and-12 shellacking in the semis. He capped his Grand Slam in 1930 with a 9-and-8 win in the semis and an 8-and-7 victory in the final, despite some of the most intense pressure a golfer has ever experienced. In five Walker Cup starts, he went 9-1 and was undefeated in singles, including wins of 9 and 8, 12 and 11, and 13 and 12. When you think about it, that's unthinkable.

Walter Hagen, 1926
AP
Walter Hagen at the 1926 PGA Championship at Salisbury Country Club in East Meadow, N.Y.

3. Walter Hagen
The Haig was overshadowed in his heyday by the amateur named Bobby, but he owned the major limited to pros, the PGA Championship, which was match play from 1916 to 1957.  He snagged five in all, including a record four in a row from 1924-27. His 7-1-1 Ryder Cup mark is a further indication that this superb putter and master of gamesmanship was a match play tour de force.

Jack Nicklaus, 1975
AP
Jack Nicklaus at the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa.

4. Jack Nicklaus
So remarkable is Jack's Holy Grail record of 18 professional majors that many forget he nabbed two U.S. Amateur wins, in 1959 and 1961, which some still count toward his major total. Sure, he has that so-so 4-4-2 Ryder Cup singles record, but his overall tally is 17-8-2. He also went 4-0 in two Walker Cup matches, won the 1970 Piccadilly World Match Play at Wentworth and took home the 1972 U.S. Professional Match Play on the PGA Tour.

Sam Snead, 1951
AP
Sam Snead at the 1951 PGA Championship at Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

5. Sam Snead
Critics point to Snead's many U.S. Open failures, but at match play, he was just the opposite. The Slammer hauled in three PGA Championships (1942, 1949 and 1951), was runner-up in '38 and '40, and navigated the Ryder Cup waters with a 10-2-1 record, highlighted by a 6-1 singles slate.
Photo at 1951 PGA Championship at Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

Byron Nelson, 1937
AP
Byron Nelson at the 1937 PGA Championship at Pittsburgh Field Club in Aspinwall, Pa.

6. Byron Nelson
Five times in seven years Lord Byron reached the PGA Championship final match, winning in 1940 (1 up over Snead) and in 1945. There wasn't much match play on tour then, as now, but as a Tour newbie, he shocked the world's No. 1 match play golfer, Lawson Little, 5 and 4 in the first round of the 1935 San Francisco Match Play and won the 1937 Belmont Open, where his victims included Lloyd Mangrum and Henry Picard. In two Ryder Cup matches, Nelson went 3 and 1.

Gene Sarazen, 1937
AP
Gene Sarazen at the at 1937 PGA Championship at Pittsburgh Field Club in Aspinwall, Pa.

7. Gene Sarazen
One of the wiliest head-to-head competitors in history, the Squire raised the PGA's Wanamaker Trophy three times, in 1922, 1923, when he downed Hagen in a memorably contentious final match, and 1933. Sarazen competed in six Ryder Cups, compiling a terrific 7-2-3 record, including 4-1-1 in singles.

Ben Hogan, 1939
AP
Ben Hogan at the 1939 PGA Championship Pomonok Country Club, New York City, with wife Valerie.

8. Ben Hogan
The Hawk suffered a few head-scratching head-to-head playoff losses, such as at the '42 Masters to Nelson, at the '54 Masters to Snead and at the '55 U.S. Open to upstart Jack Fleck, but he still excelled at the art of match play, reeling in two PGA Championships, in 1946 and 1948, and racking up an unbeaten Ryder Cup record in two appearances.

Arnold Palmer, 1971
AP
Arnold Palmer at a at practice round of 1971 Ryder Cup at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis.

9. Arnold Palmer
The King of Comebacks typically charged in stroke play, but he can claim the 1954 U.S. Amateur, which kick-started his pro career. He also racked up two Piccadilly World Match Play Championships at London's Wentworth, back when every great player in the game gathered for that event, and he distinguished himself in the heat of the Ryder Cup with a 22-8-2 mark.

Seve Ballesteros, 1987 Ryder Cup
Jacqueline Duvoisin / Sports Illustrated
Seve Ballesteros at the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio.

10.  Seve Ballesteros
Perhaps the greatest practitioner of gamesmanship since Walter Hagen, Seve was considered the ultimate match play competitor of his era, with equal credit going to his unsurpassed "never-out-of-the-hole" recovery skills. Possessor of only a modest 2-4-2 Ryder Cup singles record, he shined in the foursomes, with a 10-3-1 mark, and did well at four-balls, too, at 8-5-2. Toss in a record-tying five victories in the World Match Play at Wentworth and you have the match-play magic of Seve.


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