It is immediately apparent that the top three players ever to play the game would have to be Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Bobby Jones. To pick who was the greatest among those three is largely subjective.
Bobby Jones won 13 Majors as an amateur who actually played golf part time. He also won more than 60 percent of the Majors he entered in an eight year period. Not only that, he won all four in one year and then retired at the age of 28 at the top of his game. The fact that two of the Majors he competed in at the time were match play format, namely the US and British amateurs, this makes his record all the more impressive if you consider the vagaries of match play. For these reasons, I think Bobby Jones was the greatest player of all time.
Jack won 18 Majors. However, he did this over a long career. Tiger, on the other hand has probably won 14 in a shorter time span, especially when you consider that he hasn't won a Major in almost eight years. It's really a toss up as to who you might pick between these two, and probably depends upon when you took up the game. For me it will always be Jack. For many, especially those who grew up watching Tiger, it might be different.
I also can't help but think that Byron Nelson, had he maintained his desire to play, might have been the best of the bunch. His incredible year of 1945, with eleven wins in a row, and 18 in total, will never be even approached. It was surely the greatest single season of golf ever.
At the end of the day, discussions about who were the best players are vanity. All a great player can do is beat the guys he's playing against. It's also tough to know just how good someone was if you never saw them play. But, I guess the record books exist for that reason, to help keep an argument or discussion about something that will always be debatable going.
Focussing on Major championships won, the top three are easy. After that, things get a bit more difficult. However, the short list would be as follows: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones. Then, you have Walter Hagen with 11 Majors, Ben Hogan and Gary Player with 9, and Tom Watsom with 8 Majors. With 7 Major championship wins are Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, and Harry Vardon. Then you have Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo with six Majors.
The list of players with five Majors includes Phil Mickelson, Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros, James Braid, JH Taylor and Peter Thomson. Only 19 men have won five Majors or more in their career. When you get to four, the list includes players like Old and Young Tom Morris, Rory McIlroy, Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, Jim Barnes, Willie Park, Sr., Willie Anderson and Bobby Locke.
The fact that Rory would seem to be just getting started, you might expect him to climb that list. I also suspect that Jordan Spieth might be someone who, if he avoids injury, swing-changes, and maintains his desire, might some day be mentioned right along with Jones, Woods, and Nicklaus. He is undoubtedly a great player in the true sense of the word.
With the crop of fine players teeing it up these days, I think we just might look back some day and say this was a golden age of golf. It surely doesn't get much better than this. If you want, however, to be mentioned in the top twenty of all time, you need to win five. Only 19 men have so far managed to do it. Perhaps Rory will be the next.