It’s too bad Tiger Woods had his PGA Tour winning streak end at seven last week in Arizona. It means we’ll miss the debate about whether his streak was comparable to Byron Nelson’s famous run of 11 straight victories in 1945.
Woods, as you know unless you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank for eight months, competed in several overseas events that he didn’t win during this period. Even Woods considered his streak over, although he admitted he had a PGA Tour streak of seven going and was proud enough of it that he said it probably ranked among his top five accomplishments.
Well, let’s not let the results ruin a good debate. If Woods had gotten to 11, should his streak have replaced Byron’s as the official record? No way, said golf historian and book publisher Martin Davis, a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. Not only does the stretch by Woods not qualify in the category of consecutive wins, Davis said, it is spread over two years — a no-no to him.
“The records we look at are yearly records,” Davis said. “DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak was in the course of a year. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a year. Ted Williams hit .406 in a year. Mickey Mantle didn’t say, look, if you took my batting average from the middle of August to the middle of May, I was the last man to bat .400. We use annual records.
“Tiger wasn’t threatening Byron’s record and Tiger has as much admitted that,” Davis added. “It was a Tiger streak, not a Byron streak. I wouldn’t have put an asterisk on it. I just would’ve called it Tiger’s record. This was very much like the Tiger Slam. It was an incredible thing for Tiger to hold all four major titles at once but it was over two years. It wasn’t a Grand Slam. Look at the Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0 that one season. If another team won 18 games in a row over two seasons, does that mean they broke the Dolphins’ record? Of course not.”
This was the second time Woods made a run at Byron’s streak. The first time, he got to six in a row and charged near the lead at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Then Phil Mickelson chipped in on the back nine, heated up and pulled away for the victory. This time, Tiger was well-positioned to seriously challenge 11 in a row. Last weekend’s Accenture World Match Play Championship would’ve been No. 8, if he’d won instead of getting eliminated by Nick O’Hern in the third round.
His next likely appearances would’ve been at Bay Hill (he’s made that into an annuity by winning it four times), Doral (he’s won the last two) and the Masters (he’s donned the green jacket four times). That would’ve been No. 11, theoretically. It was realistic, but the Match Play is an unpredictable wild card.
In fact, it’s getting tougher all the time to compare golf records. The money list has long since ceased to have any meaning due to the exponential increases in prize money over the last decade. The records are a little fuzzy, too. One of Nelson’s 11 wins came in a two-ball event with his partner Jug McSpaden. Would we really count a two-man team event in that streak today? Another Nelson win came in Montreal.
“Every era has its quirks,” Davis said. “In the early part of Jack [Nicklaus]’s career, he had to use the smaller British golf ball. Another weird thing is that through 1978, he won six Australian Opens. He won more national Opens in Australia than he did in his home country. You look at that and just go, ‘Huh?'”
Nelson’s record is safe for now. It’ll be a while, if ever, before Woods gets this close again. “I would’ve loved to see Tiger have a shot at it,” Davis said. “If somebody had asked Byron when he was alive, he was much too gracious to say, ‘No, that’s not my record.’ But he would’ve enjoyed talking about Tiger. I was standing with Byron two years ago at an exhibition of all his medals and trophies and photos that were collected at the World Golf Hall of Fame. I never really saw Byron choked up about his own records, but this time he looked around the room. There was a video running, and he said, ‘You know, I did all of this in only 11 years.’ That was his whole career. He even won a couple of events after he retired. The funny thing was, he retired in 1946 and was still named to the 1947 Ryder Cup team. It was a different era.”
Davis, who has produced classic photo-heavy books on Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Nelson, currently has one in the works on Jack Nicklaus. It’s titled Jack Nicklaus: Simply the Best. I asked him if maybe that title has been rendered obsolete by Woods and whether it should be changed to Simply the Best… Until Now.
“No, not at all,” Davis said. “There’s no question that Jack is the best. He’s what Tiger is shooting for. Dan Jenkins wrote a piece in this new book and came up with a great stat. From 1960, that great U.S. Open at Cherry Hills with [Arnold] Palmer and Hogan, to the 1986 Masters, Jack played in 100 majors. He finished in the top 10 68 times. As Dan says, that’s a lot of leaderboards, folks. And Jack had some pretty stiff competition during his career — Palmer, [Gary] Player, [Billy] Casper, [Lee] Trevino, [Johnny] Miller, [Tom] Weiskopf, [Tom] Watson.
“As long as Tiger stays healthy, he’ll pass Jack. He’ll probably get every record, except for Jack’s 19 second-place finishes in majors. I don’t think he’ll get that. He wins too much. Clearly, Tiger is the best player of his generation. He’s going to challenge Jack’s record of 18 majors, no question. If you go with 20 majors overall, including the amateur, Tiger’s a little closer because he won three U.S. Amateurs to Jack’s two.
“Tiger is the only one who can challenge the modern Grand Slam. In doing this Nicklaus book, I read a lot of old issues of the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Jack talks about going after the Grand Slam in 1972 and ’75. He thought the four courses in ’72 were right in his wheelhouse. The Open was at Pebble, where he’d won the Amateur and a couple of Crosbys. The British Open was at Muirfield, where he won his first British In ’66. He loved that course. The PGA was at Oakland Hills, another course he liked a lot.
“He was pointing toward the Grand Slam. Dave Anderson of the New York Times told me he talked his editor into sending him over for the British Open just because Jack had the Grand Slam going after he won the Masters and the Open at Pebble. If it wasn’t for what was really kind of a semi-skulled shot out of a bunker by Lee Trevino that plunked against the pin and went in for birdie — Lee would’ve made bogey or double because that ball was moving pretty fast — Jack might’ve won the Slam that year.”
The rest, Davis might say, is history.