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Tiger vs. Jack

Jack Nicklaus
AP Photo

This is part of a series of great golf arguments. We've asked Alan Shipnuck and Michael Bamberger to debate who is the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. After reading their arguments, tell us what you think in our forum.

Who is the greatest golfer of all time?

My fellow typist to the west, Alan Shipnuck, has selected Tiger. Forgive master Alan. He's too young to understand that a necessary component to greatness is longevity, and that the ultimate measure of greatness is the sum total of one's accomplishments. With the wisdom of middle age I can see what young Alan cannot. The answer is Mr. Jack W. Nicklaus.

By the way — and maybe more significantly — that's Tiger's choice, too.

Nicklaus doesn't have the most tournament wins. I can't think of too many elite players who took their swing cues from Nicklaus. He was a huge talent, a prodigy who realized every expectation, but he wasn't a magician. Johnny Miller once said of Nicklaus (and I paraphrase), "Great driver. Great long irons. The rest of his game, just nice." For domination, Tiger's way ahead of Jack. He's outpacing him in all regards (except progeny). And yet, I'd call Nicklaus the greatest, and so would millions of others. Yes, Tiger, staying healthy and motivated, will someday pass him. But for now it's Jack.

And before I tell you why, let me say what I'm not considering. I'm making no allowance for how much more difficult the courses were in Nicklaus's day. (Spotty fairways, rough ground under the rough, inconsistent greens and traps.) I'm paying no attention to how much longer the courses were then. (Allowing for equipment inflation, the 7,100-yard courses Nicklaus played would have to be well over 8,000 yards today, instead of the 7,300 yards they are.) I'm not considering the improved fitness methods or practice facilities or the benefits of video analysis. I'm not factoring in Nicklaus's devotion to his brood (he was never a bachelor as a pro and played much of his career with five kids). None of that is really relevant.

To explain why Nicklaus is the greatest, I need only one short sentence: Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors over the course of 25 seasons; Tiger Woods is on his 13th, over 11 seasons.

You have to use the most tried-and-true measuring stick known to golfkind: professional majors won. Not the Ryder Cup. Not the Players Championship. Not something in the Quad Cities. For decades and generations the majors have offered the most prestige, the most money, the biggest audiences, the most demanding conditions. The majors go in your obit and on your plaque in the Hall of Fame.

Here's how our two protagonists stack up:

Nicklaus, 1962-1986: six Masters, five PGAs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens.

Woods, 1997-2007: four Masters, four PGAs, three British Opens, two U.S. Opens.

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