Top 10 greatest champions in Masters history
April 05, 2017
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Tiger Woods was only 21 years old when he won his first of four Green Jackets. (Stephen Munday/Getty Images)
Among the most coveted bounty in all of sports is the Green Jacket, given to the winner of the Masters Tournament. Fifty different players have slipped it on – and 32 of those men are still living.
Of the 18 who have passed away, the most recent is Arnold Palmer, the four-time Masters champ who died last September. That makes this week’s major the first one held since his death. No doubt the memory of the great man will live on amongst the Georgia pines at Augusta National.
Eighteen, interestingly enough, is also the number of living Masters champs who are in the field this week. One who is not, of course, is Tiger Woods, who withdrew on Friday.
And of those 18, four have won the Green Jacket more than once – Phil Mickelson (three times), and Jose Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer and Bubba Watson (twice each).
Do the current multiple champs rank among the greatest champions in Masters history? Based on my 36 years of Masters coverage, here’s my ranking of the 10 greatest champions in tournament history.(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
1. JACK NICKLAUS
Wins (6) -- 1963, ‘65, ‘66, ‘72, ’75, ‘86. Other finishes: 4 seconds, 3 thirds and 22 top-10s in 45 starts.
Nicklaus was 23 years old and just 33 starts into his professional career when he beat Tony Lema by a stroke and won his first Masters. He won two of the next three Green Jackets, too – and tied for second in the third – so Nicklaus’ legacy at Augusta National was quickly cemented.
His signature victory, though, came in 1986 when the 46-year-old -- whom an Atlanta Journal columnist had labeled washed up earlier in the week -- beat Tom Kite and Greg Norman, then ranked sixth in the world, by a single shot. Nicklaus closed with a 65 that improbable Sunday that included a masterful 30 on the back nine.
As eye-popping as Nicklaus’s six wins are, though, the 22 top-10s – one shy of 10th or better in half his 45 starts – is pretty darn impressive, too. Nicklaus was 58 when he posted his last top-10, a tie for sixth in 1998 when he shot 68 in the final round.(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
2. ARNOLD PALMER
Wins (4) – 1958, ‘60, ‘62, ’64. Other finishes: 4 seconds, 1 third and 19 top-10s in 50 starts.
Interestingly, Palmer’s four Masters wins were packed together in a seven-year span, although his competitive history with the season’s first major spans 50 – not counting the nine when he served as an honorary starter.
Those four victories came in the swashbuckling Palmer’s heyday, though – between the 1958 Masters win and when he donned his final Green Jacket in 1964, he won 33 of his 65 PGA TOUR events. All Palmer’s Masters victories came in even years starting with that one-stroke win over Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford. His last two were his most memorable, though.(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
3. TIGER WOODS
Wins (4) – 1997, 2001, ‘02 and ‘05. Other finishes: 2 seconds, 3 thirds, 13 top-10s in 20 starts.
Who knows how many times Woods would have slipped those sculpted arms into a Green Jacket had his career not been derailed by a series of injuries. After all, he started early.
Woods was only 21, making his 15th start as a pro, when he brought Augusta National to its knees 20 years ago, winning by an historic 12 strokes and leaving the rest of the world swooning. Oh, and did we mention that Woods shot 40 on his first nine that week, then played the next 63 holes in 22 under? The win – with all its social implications – was voted the AP’s top sports story of the year and Woods became the first golfer in 26 years named the organization’s athlete of the year.
Woods’ next three wins had another impact, as well. As he hit double-digits under par in each, the process of “Tiger-proofing” Augusta National was undertaken in earnest. Did it work? Yes and no. Woods hasn’t won the Masters since 2005, but he’s been in the hunt, finishing sixth or better in his last nine.(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
4. PHIL MICKELSON
Wins (3) -- 2004, ‘06 and ’10. Other finishes: 1 second, 5 thirds, 15 top-10s in 24 starts
Remember that time when we were all wondering if Mickelson would ever win a major championship? After all, he’d played in 46 – all but four of those since turning pro – and Mickelson had come up empty handed every time.
Maybe we should have seen that breakthrough at Augusta National coming, though. After all, he’d finished third at the Masters each of the previous three years and 10th or better in seven of the 10 he’d played as a pro.
Mickelson put himself in position again in 2004, grabbing a share of the third-round lead with Chris DiMarco, then firing a 31 on the back nine to nip Ernie Els by a stroke. He may not have set any high-jump records as he celebrated that 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole but Mickelson joined Palmer (1960), Sandy Lyle (1988) and Mark O’Meara (1998) in winning on the final putt of the championship.
Mickelson’s last win came in 2010 but he tied for third in 2012 and was joint runner-up in 2015, bringing his litany of top-10s to 15.(Stephen Munday/Getty Images)
5. SAM SNEAD
Wins (3) -- 1949, ‘52 and ’54. Other finishes: 2 seconds, 3 thirds, 15 top-10s in 44 starts.
Snead, who set the Holy Grail of PGA TOUR wins at 83, is the answer to a little-known Masters trivia question: Who received the first Green Jacket?
The tradition began with Snead when he beat Johnny Bulla and Lloyd Mangrum in 1949, 12 years after the first Masters, then called the Augusta National Invitation, was played. The previous winners also all got jackets, which mirror the ones worn by the club members, retroactively.
Snead’s three victories were hardly trivial pursuits, though – particularly the final one in 1954. For a while, it looked like the unthinkable might happen as amateur Billy Joe Patton, a lumber executive from Morganton, North Carolina, took the lead with an ace at No. 6. His bid ended, though, after hitting into the water twice on the closing nine while Snead, who closed with a 72 and Ben Hogan, who shot 75, headed to a playoff Monday.
In a tight battle, Snead took the lead for good when he two-putted the par-5 13th hole for birdie. The West Virginian gained a two-stroke advantage when Hogan made a three-putt bogey at No. 16 and ended up winning by one.(Harry How/Getty Images)
6. GARY PLAYER
Wins (3) -- 1961, ‘74, ’78. Other finishes: 2 seconds, 1 third, 15 top-10s in 52 starts.
Player made headlines in1961 when he became the first international player to win the Masters. The outcome wasn’t decided until the 72nd hole when the diminutive South African, who had taken a four-stroke lead into the final round, saved par from a greenside bunker and Palmer made double bogey.
The victory was one of three that year for Player, who led the PGA TOUR in earnings for the first – and only – time. Player celebrated his victory at Augusta National with an appearance on Perry Como’s TV show where he did an Elvis Presley imitation.
More than a decade passed before Player won his second Masters in 1978 but he was rarely far from the top of the leaderboard – the World Golf Hall of Famer finished fifth or better in five of his next 11 appearances. Player made up eight strokes in the final round to earn his final Masters win, firing a 64 to edge Rod Funseth, Hubert Green and Tom Watson by a stroke. Player competed in 52 Masters, more than anyone in history.(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
7. TOM WATSON
Wins (2) -- 1977, ’81. Other finishes: 3 seconds, 1 third, 15 top-10s in 43 starts.
Although he has a Nicklaus-at-the-Masters-like record at the Open Championship, Watson certainly made his mark at Augusta National, as well.
Watson won his first Green Jacket in 1977 when he took a share of the lead into the final round and held off the hard-charging Nicklaus, who closed with a 66 to the co-leader’s 67. The win was one of five, including the Open, for Watson that year, which landed him on top of the money lists and spurred him to Player of the Year honors.
Watson posted two of his three runner-up finishes in the next two years, including that playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller, who was making his Masters debut. Watson earned another two-stroke win in 1981, again edging Nicklaus, who was tied with Johnny Miller – and he did not finish outside the top 10 in his next seven appearances, either.(Stephen Munday/Getty Images)
8. BYRON NELSON
Wins (2) – 1937, ’42. Other finishes: 2 seconds, 1 third, 14 top-10s in 29 starts.
Among the many charms of Augusta National are the roars that erupt from the back nine on Sundays to telegraph players who are making a charge up the leaderboard. Imagine, then, what you might have heard around the Amen Corner in 1937 as Nelson, the gentleman rancher/golfer from Fort Worth Texas, went birdie-par-birdie-eagle on Nos. 10-13 to recover six strokes on the way to beating Ralph Guldahl. Nelson’s 70 was one of just two sub-par scores shot that day. The feat was so magical that in 1958 Masters officials opted to name the walkway that takes players across Rae’s Creek from the 13th green to the fairway the Nelson Bridge.
Nelson’s second Masters title in 1942 was equally memorable – he beat long-time friend and rival Ben Hogan in a playoff, rallying to play the final 13 holes in 5 under to win by a stroke. Nelson, who emceed the Champions Dinner for years, retired at the age of 34 in 1946 but continued to play the Masters for two more decades and finished in the top 10 for the next six years.(Getty Images)
9. BEN HOGAN
Wins (2) –1951, ’53. Other finishes: 4 seconds, 17 top-10s in 25 starts
Two years after his near-fatal automobile accident, Hogan finally won the Masters for the first time, beating Skee Riegel by two strokes in 1951. We say finally because Hogan had posted top-10 finishes in his eight previous appearances at Augusta National, including two runners-up, one of which came in a playoff with Nelson.
Hogan came up with the idea for the Champions Dinner and hosted the first one the following year. But he came up short in his title defense, taking a share of the lead into the final round only to shoot 79 and tie for seventh.
A year later, Hogan avenged that collapse by shooting 14 under and beating Ed Oliver by five strokes – the first in a three-major season that sportswriters characterized as the Hogan Slam. Runner-up finishes followed in the next two years, including a 70-71 playoff loss to Snead. Hogan made his last Masters start in 1967 and shot Saturday’s low score of 66 to head into the final round tied for fourth and two strokes off the pace before sharing 10th at the end.(Stephen Munday/Getty Images)
10. BEN CRENSHAW
Wins (2) -- 1984, ’95. Other finishes: 2 seconds, 2 thirds, 11 top-10s in 44 starts.
If this ranking were based on knowledge of Masters lore, Crenshaw -- who took over Nelson’s role as emcee of the Champions Dinner -- would likely have risen to the top of the list. Even so, his body of work at Augusta National keeps the genial Texan ahead of two players (Jimmy Demaret, Nick Faldo) with more Masters wins. Crenshaw’s 11 top-10s came in a 20-year span, which is a pretty impressive percentage – particularly when you consider six of those were of third or better.
In 1983, Crenshaw and his long-time friend Tom Kite tied for second, four strokes behind the swashbuckling Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros. Crenshaw and Kite were again in the mix the next year. Kite faded, though, leaving Crenshaw to outduel Tom Watson down the stretch for his first major win.
Hands down the most memorable of Crenshaw’s two wins, though, came in 1995 when -- days after serving as a pallbearer at his mentor Harvey Penick’s funeral -- he held off Davis Love down the stretch and won by a single stroke. One of the most famous pictures in Masters lore is the one of Crenshaw, bowed over, his face in his hands, after the final putt dropped on that emotional Sunday.
Other multiple champions:
Jimmy Demaret – 3 wins (1940, ‘47, ‘50), 1 third, 8 top-10s in 24 starts
Nick Faldo – 3 wins (1989, ‘90, ‘96), 3 top-10s in 23 starts
Seve Ballesteros -- 2 wins (1980, ‘83), 2 seconds, 1 third, 8 top 10s in 28 star
Bernhard Langer – 2 wins (1985, ‘93), 9 top-10s in 33 starts
Jose Maria Olazabal – 2 wins (1994, ‘99), 1 second, 1 third, 8 top-10s in 27 starts
Horton Smith – 2 wins (1934, ‘36), 3 top-10s in 27 starts
Bubba Watson – 2 wins (2012, ‘14), 2 top-20s in 8 starts