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Ranking the most influential golfers of the past 50 years

William K. WolfrumBy William K. Wolfrum,
Arnold Palmer
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Tiger Woods who? No golfer has been more influential in the past 50 years than Arnold Palmer. (Courtesy PGA of America)

With such a deep roster to choose from, ranking the 10 most influential golfers of the past 50 years is a tall order - but that ain't stopping WorldGolf.com's William K. Wolfrum. Powerhouses such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer all make the cut, but Wolfrum throws in a few surprises.

While the last 50 years have seen changes in every major sport, perhaps none has seen more than golf. Start with the equipment. Sports like soccer and basketball are still playing with more or less the exact same ball they played with way back in the 1950s. Not so with golf, which has seen the balls and clubs revolutionized, and then revolutionized again and again.

That's just one reason why it's nearly impossible to list the greatest golfers, at least in terms of ability. And while the fact is that most will agree that the race for the best male golfer of the past 50 years will come down to Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the different equipment they use and courses they play make comparison nearly impossible from a purely playing standpoint.

That's why ranking golfers according to their influence on the sport makes more sense in many ways. So here's a ranking of the top-10 influential of the past 50 years, taking into account several different factors, including ability, charisma and overall effect on the game. And while your opinion may differ, that's really the point of these types of lists.

The 10 most influential golfers of the past 50 years

1. Arnold Palmer

Comments: There can only be one King, and Palmer is he. Simply put, Palmer was a rock star playing golf. Not only did he put up the numbers of a champion, including seven major titles, Palmer had it all. He was handsome, charming and literally reeked of charisma. His arrival when the U.S. was just tuning in to television was invaluable, both for him and for golf. His swing would have been an ugly monstrosity for anyone else, but with him, it was a thing of beauty. His loyal fans, "Arnie's Army" will quickly agree - no one was more important to the game of golf in the past half century.

2. Tiger Woods

Comments: If there was a perfect connection of a golfer showing up when golf needed him, it's Woods. Face it, prior to Woods' arrival on the PGA Tour, seeing a player win consecutive events was becoming a rarity. The parity of the tour made for some exciting finishes, but who was really watching? Woods showed up just in time to take off on the Internet and just as more and more cable channels started showing up, and Tiger was a perfect media presence. Woods is perhaps as good an athlete as golf has ever seen, helps ratings go through the roof, avoids scandals and, most importantly, wins tournaments. When the chase for Jack Nicklaus' all-time record for majors starts getting close, Woods will get even more media play.

3. Jack Nicklaus

Comments: The main reason the Golden Bear doesn't get the nod over Woods is due to the fact that his career overlapped so much with Palmer, and he was forced to share some of his limelight. Still, you can easily make the argument that the "Golden Bear" should be No. 1 on this list. A record 18 major victories and numerous close calls during a career where he dominated in an era of great golfers means it's impossible to rank anyone higher as a pure golfer. And while his design career has often been considered hit and miss, he has remained a brilliant ambassador for the game.

4. Charles Sifford

Comments: Of the golfers on this list, Sifford by far has the least impressive resume in terms of victories, with just two PGA Tour wins. But Sifford was much more than his results on tour. As Jackie Robinson did for baseball, Sifford broke the color barrier in golf, a monumental achievement for a sport that has always had a reputation as elitist.

5. Kathy Whitworth

Comments: Along with Mickey Wright, Whitworth put the LPGA on the map. Her 88 career professional victories is one of the few marks that even Tiger Woods may not break. A seven-time LPGA Player of the year, Whitworth just flat out owned the tour, and during her playing career women's golf was synonymous with her name. The first woman to earn more than $1 million playing golf, Whitworth helped make the LPGA what it is today.

6. Gary Player

Comments: Player won nine majors at a time when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were in their primes. That right there is enough to demand that the South African be on any list ranking influential golfers. All told Player won 163 times around the world, including 24 times on the PGA Tour. Player has built golf courses, been a philanthropist, bred horses and never been afraid to speak his mind, including coming out for drug-testing on the PGA Tour.

7. Nancy Lopez

Comments: In 1978 Lopez exploded onto the LPGA Tour, winning nine times and being named rookie of the year and player of the year. Her combination of great play, media friendliness and all-American good looks gave the LPGA a superstar of its own as she graced covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated, taking the game to a higher level. With 48 career victories, no one burst on the scene any hotter and brought more attention to the game than Lopez.

8. Annika Sorenstam

Comments: Say what you will, but when you're getting text messages from Tiger Woods, you're in the upper echelon of athletics. The only female to shoot a 59 in competition, Sorenstam has been a towering figure in women's golf. Born in Sweden and a naturalized American, Sorenstam has won 69 times on the LPGA Tour, has been player of the year eight times and holds a truckload of tour records. She became the first woman in more than 50 years to play in a men's event, and missed the cut by just two strokes, never to return. While her spot on top of the LPGA game has been taken by Lorena Ochoa, many are expecting a healthy Annika to mount a serious 2008 comeback and add to her already hall-of-fame career totals.

9. Sam Snead

Comments: Most of Snead's best work was done more than 50 years ago, but his effect on the game was immense. "Slammin' Sammy" was virtually synonymous with the PGA Tour for several generations of golfers, and his career record for PGA Tour victories remains intact. A gentlemanly, friendly and fun personage made him the perfect example of the type of player golfers would want to emulate, both on and off the course.

10. Se Ri Pak

Comments: At present, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone ranking Pak in the top-10 all time female golfers, though she likely ranks near the fringes of that list. In just over 10 years on the LPGA Tour, however, Pak's influence has been monumental. Just look at the ever-lengthening list of South Koreans on the LPGA Tour, and you'll see Pak's influence. A hall of famer at the age of 30 and the winner of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic five times, Pak's success and the inspiration she gives to her countrywomen has changed the face of the LPGA more than any other golfer currently on tour.

Honorable Mentions: Ben Hogan*, Billy Casper, Joanne Carner, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Isao Aoki, Jan Stephenson, John Daly.

* Hogan by far had the best of his career more than 50 years ago, and would merit a spot if the list were the top influential golfers of the past century.

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William K. Wolfrum keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. You can follow him on Twitter @Wolfrum.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Top Ten Golfers

    Mike Wilde wrote on: May 13, 2016

    Why only 50 years?
    Any list of golfers MUST include.. Bobby Jones & Ben Hogan.


  • influencial golfers

    Jeff wrote on: Sep 7, 2011

    How in the world can you not have the most influential golfer of all time on your list, Bobby Jones.


  • top 10 golfers

    alex johnson wrote on: Apr 13, 2009

    What about Ballesteros


      • RE: top 10 golfers

        Corey wrote on: Sep 16, 2009

        What about one of the best players in history Bobby Jones?