For me,Peter Gade is the best person to answer that question, he has the credentials being an excellent player himself and has played all three of them at their prime. As we know, PG considers Lin Dan the Best of the Best, and I, for one, humbly speaking, absolutely agree with him.
I think another two whose opinions on this should count are Morten Frost and Lee Hyun Il. The former virtually acknowledged Lin Dan as the greatest when posed the question by GC the commentator, and the latter who has also played all three of them at their best actually called Lin Dan the perfect shuttler.
Taufik's prime was at or before 2004/5 whereas Lin Dan's was around 2008 whilst Lee CW's after 2008 stretching through to the 2012 London Olympics. In view of the fact that their careers largely overlap and they have played each other so many times, I believe they know in their hearts who is the best among them.
IMHO, if they play each other at their prime, Lin Dan will still come out on top. As for Lee CW vs Taufik Hidayat, I'd also go for Lee CW , by a bit.
No matter what, such comparisons can never be fully objective as the subjective element would inevitably come into play somehow even among contemporaries, so I would take into consideration majority expert opinions (from professional players and coaches mostly), esp. when they are directly involved.
Taufik is my prime answer. I never ever followed badminton in my young age and hence i missed the chance of watching taufik's matches. But when i started watching badminton matches of Taufik and LinDan, at Taufik's prime, even Lindan was eager to play taufik at any point of time . I heard that from one of his interviews.
Lee Chong Wei is an absolute sportsperson when compared to all the other top badminton players who are active currently. No doubt about it.
Taufik, at his very best, was agile, strong and (most importantly) had vision and imagination. He could not only put it where you didn't expect it, but put it where you never dreamed he'd put it.
Lee Chong Wei was always an amazing retriever. Then he trained himself to be aggressive, as well. But even though he tries to portray the unemotional tough guy on court, behind the stone face you can see doubt when he is playing the best of the best.
Therefore my vote is for uber-Taufik. He'd neutralize the speed and confound uber-LCW with his confident unorthodoxy.
But there's one thing about Taufik (born 10 Aug 1981) that will forever remain an enigma to me, and that is, after 2005 when he was still only 24 and he carried on active competition another 8 years until his retirement middle of this year, yet he never once reproduce his best form of yesteryear.
It's not that he was seriously injured or something during that long 8-year period; whilst you could attribute it to his waning motivation but, surely, there were a few occasions when he himself indicated he would try his level best to win them, such as the 2010 Paris WC and the 2012 London Olympics (not to mention the annual All England Championships) and, the rest is history.
On this point I can't help but compare him with , say, Lee Hyun Il (born 17 Apr 1980) who retired and come back three or four times now and at age 33...well, need I say more - imagine I'm (intentionally) not talking about Lin Dan's comeback, what a huge contrast that will make, indubitably apparent.
Don't get me wrong. Unmistakably, Taufik Hidayat is, to me, a great player, one of the greatest, except that I find it hard to put him in the same league as Lin Dan, Zhao Jianhua or even Lee CW (though arguably not by much in this case).
For any great player, consistency has to be one of the essential characteristics and , for this criterion, it has to be for a significant length of time measured by years; not too short a time or it becomes unconvincing, even questionable. In Taufik's case, his consistency at the top was sufficiently long for him to win a couple of majors but not long enough to impress many of us, me at least, to regard him as in the same league as LD, ZJH and arguably LCW.
True, in Lee CWs case it has often been pointed out that he failed and continues to fail to win any major titles for which, it's clearly undeniable that it can be attributed to his best years being coincident with Lin Dan's era. At the very least, we can say that Taufik has won the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2005 WC before the commencement of Lin Dan's era, some of you would argue. However, Lee CW's phenomenal consistency stretching for several continuous years in terms of the titles won, particularly the Superseries, and the number of times he beat Taufik and the rest apart from Lin Dan (and Chen Long in later years), speaks volumes of his greatness.
If I may comment on Taufik's superb techniques, say his amazing backhand (not to mention his deft touches at the net with a dose of deceptiveness) - how often did he score points from it, the stinging backhand smash, in his latter years as compared with his former years ? No doubt, still his weaponry, it gradually lost some of its shine as more and more opponents began to get more accustomed and better prepared for it. My point is unless a player continues to sharpen his skills, fine-tune and constantly improve on his techniques in terms of their execution and finesse, whatever killer shot(s) you have will lose its cutting edge in a matter of time. That's just my humble opinion.
I believe Taufik at his very best outclasses LCW, at his very best, in the netplay, flat play, and power of the smash. I also believe Taufik is tactically better and has better judgment of when a shot is going out.
I think LCW's big advantage over Taufik would be his speed, but Taufik would be able to keep pace with him. That and maybe more consistency. I remember when Taufik was young and played Peter Gade at the AE in 2004 Taufik had trouble stringing together enough high quality rallies to win. It happens to him sometimes. Still though, I'll have to go with Taufik Hidayat!
Well, I think in their prime Taufik would probably win 6 of 10 matches playing Lee Chong Wei. If you look at the way Taufik played LCW in 2010 WC he probably tactically made so many right moves, imagine if he still had the body and drive from when he was younger. I don't know what to make of that LCW first started having a positive H2H playing TH in 2008.
I think Taufik has more ways to win points than LCW, not only relying on his physical play but using the net and pace better (pace is probably equally as good, maybe that LCW more likes to up the pace of movement and not pace of shot as much as LD,TH does )and in his prime Taufik had good smash defense, I think he and some more players reads where the smashes will be going very well.
But, if by Lee Chong Wei's prime you simple choose the 2011 All England I don't think anyone besides Lin Dan has a shot of winning a match with him, didn't he keep EVERYONE including Lin Dan to max 17 points?
I wish we could make some of these comparisons in a vacuum. Because, it is just now that LCW finally has shown that he can perform the way he usually can in a major competition. If he would have been able to do that for a while longer I probably would have rated his prime above Taufiks. Taufiks WC medals stretch over 2001-2010 with 4 medals where as LCW's 2005-2013 with 3. And in the earlier years of TH the WC wasn't a annual event. And Taufik was not always ON to say the least, consistency wasn't his strong side.
I like that Taufik was at least able to contend for the big/major titles/medals as he showed in 1999 AE, 2000 AE 2001 WC 2002 AG 2004 OG 2005 WC 2009 WC and 2010 WC...Like, even if he didn't win those titles I think it still shows that he was more or less on the map during that time, ranked 2 in 2010 for example I think, most would say he didn't really perform like the Nr 2 guy though.
Lee Chong Wei has not been able to do that for as a long time I think. 2005 WC, 2008 AE and OG, 2009 AE, 2010 AE,AG. 2011, AE WC, 2012 AE,OG, 2013 AE, WC. It's just that when he suddenly turned on he and Lin Dan was simply so much better than mostly everyone else for a while. But I outside of the majors(where it's very close) Lee Chong Wei has won much more, so much. But, then again, if they were placed in a vacuum(Can you even do that?) what a player has won doesn't really matter.
So, I still think that in a vacuum TH wins 6 of 10 times, but I can(maybe) understand if someone thinks that LCW wins this.
There was a tournament in China called 4-Kings of Badminton (dunno what year it was), where LCW vs PG & LD vs TH. I guess it would be fair to include PG & LD to the poll as well. TH was indeed an amazing player back in his prime time, but after marriage... i could say he slowly & constantly going down the hill and never made it back to the top rank. LCW constantly keeping up his world rank #1 even after marriage, bravo for that! LD after mariage, contantly missing out all level of superseries tournaments hence his world rank fall to the bottom of the pit but once he's back, everyone can expect a glorious winning, kuddos for that! PG already has families long before these other three kings got married, and yet he was still able to retain world rank within top-5 in the world until retirement!