From Allan Robertson, the Scotsman generally regarded as the game's first professional, to Tiger Woods, fewer than a dozen players, by my count, have been dubbed "the best ever." Robertson was the first to break 80 on the Old Course, in 1858, and Woods was the first to win four professional majors in a row, in 2001. In the generations between, Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer have all been heirs to this nebulous distinction. But today the list has been narrowed to just four credible candidates: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods.
Let's begin with Woods, who after winning his 14th major in gutsy fashion at Torrey Pines in 2008 was almost universally heralded as the Greatest of All Time. That hype was based on the assumption that Tiger would pass Jack's total of 18 major wins, as if the case should be settled purely on that stat. It shouldn't. Even if Tiger breaks Jack's major record, I wouldn't call Tiger the best of all time. He wasn't even the best over a short time.
Tiger's stretch from 1999 to 2002, when he won seven of 11 majors that he entered, is considered by many to be the finest golf ever played. But from 1923-'30, Jones also won seven of the 11 professional majors he played in, he was runner-up in three others, and his average finish was second. From 1948-'53, Hogan won eight of the 12 majors he played in, and he too averaged a second-place finish. Tiger's average finish from the '99 PGA to the '02 U.S. Open? Seventh. So if the discussion is about the best golf ever played, even over a short span, Woods trails Jones and Hogan. And so does Nicklaus.
To identify the best player over a career, however, you must consider a player's longevity and the competition that he faced. Here, Nicklaus takes a bigger lead than Secretariat's on the home stretch at Belmont. At various points, Jack faced Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman. Collectively, this group won 65 majors and 447 PGA Tour titles. Jack's competition was the greatest any player has ever faced. In his record 19 runner-up finishes in the majors, Nicklaus was edged four times by both Watson and Trevino, twice by Palmer, and once by Player, Miller, and Ballesteros.
Conversely, Woods has just six runner-up finishes in the majors, and he has never finished second in a major to Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson or Padraig Harrington, the players who've shined the brightest in the Tiger era. Yes, Tiger has won 14 majors, but in golf winning is neither everything nor the only thing. If you finish second in football, you've lost; in golf, you've beaten 150 other players. So while Jack is only four majors ahead of Tiger, he's 13 runner-up finishes ahead—against much stiffer rivals. A player can only beat the competition he plays against, but that doesn't change the fact that Jack dueled legends. Tiger dueled Bob May.
Centuries ago in the Colosseum, the Romans pitted various animals against one another, including dogs, leopards and elephants. The one match considered a fair fight was between a bear and a tiger. One would kill the other as often as he would be killed. The Romans knew an even bet when they saw one. But my money? It's on the Bear.