All professional golfers are excellent ball strikers, right? It would be wrong to say Tour players aren’t all very well accomplished at compressing the ball and finding pretty much the dead center of the clubface strike after strike. So yes, they’re all generally very good.
If you were to walk along the practice range at a Tour event, you’d be mesmerised by the sound of the perfect strike, one after the other, that sweet connection almost immediately followed by an immensely satisfying fizz through the air.
For a very long time however – perhaps even since the likes of Byron Nelson and Sam Snead were striping their hickory-shaft woods – there has been this debate as to who the game’s greatest ball strikers are. A few names spring to mind immediately, Woods, McIlroy and Els, to name but three in the modern era.
Go back through the decades and there are plenty of players who have built a reputation for pure ball striking. Here, we take a look at the game’s greatest ball strikers of all time. If you’ve seen any of these players in action, you’ve been very fortunate, because no one has ever struck a ball quite so well on a consistent basis. These are what you call 'flushers'!
DAVIS LOVE III
The list of players to have won more than 20 PGA Tour titles isn’t a lengthy one, but on it you’ll find the name Davis Love III. The man from North Carolina, who won the PGA Championship in 1997, has one of those ageless swings, which goes a long way to explaining why he’s been able to accumulate so many victories over such an extended period of time. The word ‘smooth’ comes to mind.
It was tempting to mark the ‘Iceman’ down for being one of those rare Tour pros who, for long periods throughout his career, has opted not to hit a driver. However, it has meant that the Swede has treated us to a masterclass in how to hit fairway woods. Watching the former Open champion – and what a display of ball striking that was at Royal Troon – strike his 3-wood off the tee is a thing of beauty.
For a long time, Bubba Watson was really just known for hitting the ball huge distances. That changed long before he won his first Masters title in 2012. As well as being able to outdrive most of his competitors, his ability to shape the ball both ways puts the American in a different league, so far as ball striking is concerned. Watching the American get creative never gets boring, nor does the way he pictures shots, which is quite different to most other players.
The World Golf Hall of fame inductee captured 29 PGA Tour titles, including the 1961 US Open. He had a self-designed technique that many of peers envied – an ability to stay behind the ball through impact. It has been reported that even Ben Hogan would stop to watch the San Diego man stripe balls on the range. Now, anyone who could attract Hogan’s attention obviously had a swing worth watching.
People would pay a lot of money to swing a golf club like the ‘Elk’ did in his pomp. You don’t win two Players Championships at Sawgrass without being able to stripe your irons – and that’s what the Australian did, time after time. He had impeccable tempo and always seemed to finish perfectly balanced, even if he wasn’t playing from a perfect lie on the fairway. And he even managed to do so when, at times, he wasn’t in the best of health.
Anyone who’s watched the former Open champion swing a golf club will probably wonder how he doesn’t win every week. The rhythm and tempo he possesses is what most golfers strive for; he has an ability to make it all seem so effortless. However, despite having one of the most aesthetically pleasing swings in the game, it’s probably fair to say he’s not won as often as his talent would suggest he should have.
If you want to know how to master of the basics, you’d do well to watch Nelly Korda, who possesses one of the most beautiful and efficient golf swings in the game. It’s a silky-smooth swing that Jordan Spieth once compared to Adam Scott. Of course, great ball-striking qualities run in the Korda family; Petr was quite handy with a tennis racquet, as is her brother Sebastian, and her sister Jessica is also a professional golfer.
Tommy Bolt was known for two things. Number one, and it’s often what we think of first when the American’s name is mentioned, is his temper; he had a reputation for throwing tantrums – and golf clubs. The second was his sweet swing, which helped him to win 15 times on the PGA Tour from 1950 to 1965, which wasn’t bad considering he was usually coming up against Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.
England’s Lee Westwood is one of the best ball strikers of the last 20 or so years, and is widely regarded as one of the most consistent drivers of a golf ball there has been since the turn of the century. Although his golf swing might not be what you call textbook, he’s been able to repeat his action time and time again; it’s one of the reasons why he’s been able to win regularly on Tour over such an extended period of time.
To watch Sandy Lyle hit persimmon 3-woods on the range 30-odd years ago was a sight to behold. Of course, thoughts of that iron shot on the 18th hole at Augusta in 1988 immediately spring to mind when discussing the Scot; it was the perfect strike that set up his Masters victory. However, the 18-time European Tour (now DP World Tour) winner was pretty lethal with most clubs in the bag. Simply a wonderful ball striker.
O’Grady played the PGA Tour in the 1970s and 1980s after a record number of attempts at qualifying school. Many regarded the American as one of the purest ball-strikers of his time. Despite finding victories hard to come by (he did win twice on the PGA Tour), his swing was often labelled as perfect. He once spent more than $150,000 of his money on a computerized attempt to devise an ideal swing.
There’s not a great of the game who hasn’t passed comment on the legendary Sam Snead’s golf swing and ball-striking prowess. Tiger, Jack, Player… they’ve all gushed over the wonderfully loose and rhythmical action of the 82-time PGA Tour (seven Major Championships) winner at some point. “Perfect” is how Nicklaus described it, while Byron Nelson once said, “He had a swing so sweet, you could pour it from a syrup bottle.”
The Swede took the women’s game to a new level in the 1990s. At the peak of her powers, she was in a league of her own, winning 72 times on the LPGA Tour, 10 of which were Major Championships. In 2003, she became the first player since Babe Zaharias to play in a men's PGA Tour event. Her consistency was remarkable, as was her swing tempo, something that never faltered under pressure.
One of Nick Faldo’s greatest ever achievements was surely the 18 straight pars he put together at Muirfield in 1987 to win the first of his six Major Championship titles. Flashy? No. However, it says everything about Faldo and his swing that he could control his ball so perfectly around the links on the final day of a Major. The Englishman had a wonderful temperament, too, but his ball-striking qualities were also right up there with the best.
The former world number one was a prestigious ball striker, especially with his long irons. You suspect the Welshman would be one of those, like Faldo, who would enjoy seeing modern players having to hit drivers with smaller faces, too. In their era, it was a real skill to be able to find the center of the clubface, but ‘Woosie’ and co were on a different level. You don’t win a Green Jacket without having a big tick in the ball-striking column.
It’s often said that when the Ulsterman is swinging his best, no one can beat him. The man from Holywood certainly isn’t the only one who possesses a fine swing, but his ability to hit the ball so far off the tee and usually with such great accuracy, makes him one of the best ball strikers of the modern era. With such great speed through the ball, he’s also able to hit his iron shots extremely high and land the ball softly, another of his great assets.
It’s a toss up between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as to who is the greatest player of all time, so it stands to reason why the galleries are ten deep when Woods is hitting balls on the range. Aside from the long list of records that he boasts and the aura that surrounds him, there’s another reason why people flock to see him hit just one shot: the sound of the ball as it leaves his clubface. You’re a very lucky person indeed if you’ve been behind Woods when he’s hit one of his trademark ‘stinger’ shots.
Moe who? Shame on you if you haven’t heard the name – you must go and do some reading (and watching) up. Murray Irwin Norman wasn’t conventional by any standards. He didn’t see a doctor until he was 68, never owned a telephone, only went on three “dates” in his life and received three tickets for driving his Cadillac too slowly. His golf swing was unique, too. Setting the club way out in front of him and a foot behind the ball, he swung with his feet flat on the ground – but the ball went straight, every single time.
Whenever there’s a conversation around golf’s best-looking swing, the Aussie is always going to be involved. True, a swing that looks fantastic doesn’t necessarily mean that the ball gets struck sweetly every time, but Scott can’t have hit too many poor ones over the years. The former Masters champion may have had his issues on the greens at times in his career, but ball striking issues won’t ever have kept him awake at night.
With 18 Major Championship titles to his name, a quite ludicrous record, it’s probably fair to say the ‘Golden Bear’ didn’t really have any weaknesses. However, one of his greatest strengths was his ball-striking. Much like Woods, the sound of ball leaving the clubface must have been quite intimidating if you were playing alongside him. Even now, long after his retirement, a picture of Nicklaus in the finish position is quite the sight.
Vijay Singh is renown for his tireless work ethic; the Fijian hits a lot of golf balls. However, the thousands upon thousands of hours the former Masters champion has put in on the range over the years has paid dividends, and given the three-time Major champion a license to print money. You wonder how many more titles he’d have won had he just been been able to master his putting stroke.
This colorful character wasn’t just long – he was straight, too. There must have been times during the American’s career when he thought he had the game conquered, such as the 13-month spell between June 1971 and July 1972, when he won a US Open and two Claret Jugs. He once said that he wasn’t a great putter but his “ball-striking was always the same”. That’s to say, it was always of a very, very high standard.
Nick Price’s golf swing falls into the ‘textbook’ category, at least it was by the time legendary teacher David Leadbetter had finished with him. The Price of the early 90s, the one who rarely missed a drive, was a very hard man to beat. And how about this for consistency? The three-time Major winner once went 10 consecutive seasons inside the top 10 in Total Driving. Long and straight – a pretty useful combination to have.
Shirley Spork, one of the founding members of the LPGA, once said Wright “had the best swing ever”, an action that everyone wanted. Ben Hogan said exactly the same. She was taught to use her legs in the golf swing to drive and get the force effort through the ball – and it was mightily effective. With her strength and power, Wright would devour the par 5s. It wasn’t just her power that was so impressive, but her precision with long irons, which she could also send way up high.
George Knudson was obsessed with the swing that belonged to a certain Ben Hogan. The Canadian, who won eight times on the PGA Tour between 1968 and 1972, and narrowly lost out on a Green Jacket at Augusta in 1969, spent a lot of time studying the great man’s swing – and you’d have to say that it paid dividends, for he too went on to establish himself as one of the best ball strikers of his era.
Ernie’s tempo has never changed. Well, maybe the swing hasn’t looked quite so fluid since he passed 50. The South African has won titles all over the world, and anyone who’s had the pleasure of watching him will no doubt have marvelled at his ball-striking ability. We’re talking about a player with the nickname ‘The Big Easy’, given to him because of the manner in which he swings a club. Effortless.
LPGA co-founder Louise Suggs was nicknamed ‘The Little Hogan’ by media in the early years. The Georgia native had a long backswing which, combined with a huge body turn, enabled her to generate a lot of speed, much more than her contemporaries. It’s one of the reasons why she racked up a total of 61 professional titles, including 11 Major Championships. Suggs became one of the six inaugural inductees of the LPGA Hall of Fame, as well as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
In terms of iron play, there have fewer better strikers of the ball than Johnny Miller. Not only was the 25-time PGA Tour winner extremely powerful, his timing was exemplary, and his long irons rarely anything other than deadly accurate. From 1971 to 1976, Miller won 18 times, including two Major Championships, one of which included a final-round 63 at Oakmont. Yes, that Oakmont, one of the hardest courses in America.
It’s easy to understand why Sergio Garcia has, at times, lost his cool on the course. For a time, few players came close to matching the Spaniard on such a consistent basis tee to green, and he was unquestionably one of the most gifted ball strikers of his generation. The putting stroke has not always been so reliable, but watching the former Masters champion settle over and then strike an iron shot is a beautiful sight.
Before suffering a workout injury, Purtzer was regarded as one of the best ball strikers in the business, and, for some, right up there with the greatest of all time. Purtzer was a natural. The co-ordination from the takeaway, up to the top of the backswing, the transition and then down through the hitting zone, was flawless. With such a great swing, he probably should have won more than he did.
For many, the great Ben Hogan, a winner of nine Major Championships between 1946 and 1953, is the number one ball striker of all time. The ‘Hawk’ loved to hit balls – and when he did, they stayed hit. His long, flowing motion, lower body shift towards the target and weight transfer into the ball produced such a wonderful strike, and the type of power that many of his peers simply struggled to compete with.
Nelson was nicknamed “The Father of the Modern Golf Swing” because of his trailblazing role in the transition from hickory shafts. What kind of damage would Nelson have done with a set of golf clubs from the modern era? It’s always tempting to ask such questions when discussing the greats of the game from several generations ago. In 1945, the American strung together 11 consecutive victories. Quite simply, he was a prolific winner and one of the best ever strikers of a golf ball ever.