To golf fans of a certain age, the sight of an oversize first-place cheque carries a certain hint of nostalgia. For years, the marketing gimmick was a ubiquitous symbol of pro golf success, even if it was literally worthless. There’s never been an actual winner’s circle that a newly crowned PGA Tour champ steps into upon victory in a tour event, but there was a four-foot long piece of cardboard they handed to you that showed you’d made it.

Of course, times change. So too has the amount of money that golfers are playing for on the PGA Tour. If those oversize cheques hadn’t gone the way of the persimmon driver and balata golf ball, they’d need to be seven-feet long in order to have room for all the zeros.

When Justin Thomas won the Players Championship in March, he earned $US2,700,000, the biggest payday any golfer has ever claimed for a single tournament finish in an official PGA Tour event. The winner of every full-status PGA Tour event makes more than a million bucks for his effort, which exceeds the career earnings of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and dozens of other legends who have spots in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

The contrast is striking, as we noticed vividly when we went through the exercise of researching what was the largest payday for the PGA Tour’s most prolific all-time winners.

We looked at the top 50 on the career victory list (53 players with ties) and, using the PGA Tour’s Media Guide and ShotLink database, uncovered the biggest prizes earned for each golfer.

A couple things to note: For those players who competed before the 1960s, many of the PGA Tour’s records regarding earnings are incomplete; we’re only listing what the PGA Tour records show. For instance, Walter Hagen’s winnings from his five PGA Championship titles weren’t accounted for, although cross referencing them with the PGA of America’s records indicated that they still didn’t exceed the $1,250 “The Haig” made finishing third at the 1931 St Paul Open.

And that’s not a typo … Hagen’s biggest payday in the PGA Tour records came from a third-place finish. As it turns out, the largest cheques many players earned came not from their most famous victories but from lesser showings in events that were played later in their careers, the overall purses having risen enough to make finishing second or third more lucrative than earlier wins.

Tom Watson’s earnings for his playoff loss at the 2009 Open Championship exceeded the first-place prizes in all 39 of his PGA Tour victories. And Greg Norman’s third-place finish at the 2008 Open Championship ($US509,618) was bigger than anything in a PGA Tour event that Norman had ever earned.

With that, here is the complete list:

Sam Snead (82 career wins)
$24,000, 1968 Milwaukee Open (finished second)

Tiger Woods (82)
$2,070,000, 2019 Masters

Jack Nicklaus (73)
$144,000, 1986 Masters

Ben Hogan (64)
$12,500, 1951 World Championship of Golf

Arnold Palmer (62)
$50,000, 1971 Westchester Classic

Byron Nelson (52)
$13,600, 1945 Tam O’Shanter Open

Billy Casper (51)
$40,000, 1973 Sammy Davis Jr Greater Hartford Open

Walter Hagen (45)
$1,250, 1931 St Paul Open (finished 3rd)

Phil Mickelson (44)
$1,700,000, 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship

Cary Middlecoff (39)
$12,500, 1952 World Championship of Golf (finished second)

Tom Watson (39)
$732,603, 2009 Open Championship (finished second)

Gene Sarazen (38)
$10,000, 1930 Agua Caliente Open

Lloyd Mangrum (36)
$6,000, 1956 Los Angeles Open

Vijay Singh (34)
$1,350,000, 2008 WGC-Bridgestone

Jimmy Demaret (31)
$7,000, 1949 World Championship of Golf (finished second)

Horton Smith (30) 
$5,000, 1929 La Gorce Open

Harry Cooper (29)
$3,500, 1926 Los Angeles Open

Gene Littler (29)
$50,000, 1975 Westchester Classic

Lee Trevino (29) 
$125,000, 1984 PGA Championship

Leo Diegel (28)
$1,500, 1925 Florida Open

Paul Runyan (28)
$1,500, 1933 Agua Caliente Open

Henry Picard (26)
$2,000, 3 times

Tommy Armour (25)
$2,500, 1930 St Louis Open

Johnny Miller (25)
$225,000 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Macdonald Smith (25)
$3,000, 1928 Los Angeles Open, 1929 Los Angeles Open

Dustin Johnson (24)
$2,070,000, 2020 Masters

Gary Player (24)
$62,500, 1984 PGA Championship (finished second)

James Barnes (22)
Records incomplete

Johnny Farrell (22)
$5,000, 1928 La Gorce Open

Raymond Floyd (22)
$252,000, 1992 Doral-Ryder Open

Davis Love III (21)
$1,170,000, 2003 Players Championship

Willie MacFarlane (21)
$2,500, 1933 Miami Biltmore Open

Lanny Wadkins (21)
$198,000, 1991 United Hawaiian Open

Craig Wood (21)
$3,325, 1944 Philadelphia Inquirer (finished second)

Hale Irwin (20)
$225,000, 1994 MCI Heritage

Greg Norman (20)
$509,618, 2008 Open Championship (finished third)

Johnny Revolta (20)
$2,500, 1937 Miami Biltmore Open

Doug Sanders (20)
$35,000, 1972 Kemper Open

Ben Crenshaw (19)
$396,000, 1995 Masters

Ernie Els (19)
$1,405,890, 2012 Open Championship

Doug Ford (19)
$9,000, 1961 500 Festival Invitational, 1963 Canadian Open

Hubert Green (19)
$125,000, 1985 PGA Championship

Tom Kite (19)
$450,000, 1989 Nabisco Championship

Bill Behlhorn (19)
$5,000, 1930 La Gorce Open

Julius Boros (18)
$50,000, 1955 World Championship of Golf, 1968 Westchester Classic

Jim Ferrier (18)
$5,500, 1960 PGA Championship (finished second)

Ernest “Dutch” Harrison (18)
$3,950, 1960 US Open (finished third)

Rory McIlroy (18)
$2,250,000, 2019 Players Championship

Nick Price (18)
$604,800, 2003 EDS Byron Nelson (finished second)

Bobby Cruickshank (17)
$3,500, 1927 Los Angeles Open

Jim Furyk (17)
$1,350,000, 2019 Players Championship (finished second)

Harold McSpaden (17)
$4,375, 1944 Los Angeles Open

Curtis Strange (17)
$360,000, 1988 Nabisco Championship