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.
If Tiger gets to 19, and he likely will, he’ll become the greatest golfer ever. Until then, I’m sticking with Jack.
One other point about Jack’s 18 majors: he had to beat all manner of men who were hellbent on winning. Some of them, really, were a little crazy. These golfers won at least two majors in the Nicklaus years: Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hubert Green, Raymond Floyd, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Andy North, Tom Watson, Dave Stockton, Lee Trevino, David Graham, Julius Boros, Seve Ballesteros, Tony Jacklin. As a group, they beat Nicklaus more often than he beat them, and he still got to 18.
Here’s the fivesome of golfers who have won multiple majors since Tiger won his first major in April 1997: Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Mark O’Meara. (Jose Maria Olazabal, Lee Janzen and Payne Stewart, all multiple major winners, each won one after April 1997.) The Els fivesome would have won in any era, including Jack’s, but even combined they don’t match Woods.
Nicklaus’s wins in majors have the advantage of being much more memorable, and that plays into greatness. Think of Nicklaus going against Palmer, against Trevino, against Watson, against Father Time. What are the equivalents for Tiger? Beating Bob May at a PGA and Chris DiMarco at Augusta?
It’s not Tiger’s fault he doesn’t have more competition. (Just the opposite.) If I had to guess, I’d think Tiger today and Jack in his long prime would have been very close in skill. Tiger is likely a better putter, chipper and bunker player. Jack drove it better, longer (allowing for equipment inflation) and straighter. As strategists, I imagine they’d be very similar. Tiger doesn’t get nearly the credit he should for outthinking the field, and the course architects, too.
If Jack, circa 1972, played Tiger, circa 2007, in stroke play for four days a week every other week for a year, I bet it would be very close. If I had to lean one way, I’d go with Tiger, maybe 54-50, because I think he’s more driven than Jack was, and Jack was plenty driven. Woods may well be the most skilled and dominant golfer ever, even if his competition hasn’t been as stout. (Tiger’s fields are deeper, but it’s the talent at the top that matters.) He’s done many things Jack never even thought about, most notably winning the Masters by 12 shots and the U.S. Open by 15. He’s been on the national golf stage since the age of 15 but shows no signs of letting up, even as he starts a family of his own.
But for now, Tiger trails the Golden Bear by five. Big Jack’s the leader in the clubhouse, and Tiger’s just walking to the eighth tee. Time is on his side, but he still has a lot of work to do.