Tiger Woods’ already-historic PGA Tour career turned 300 at The Players Championship this weekend, and with that anniversary comes yet another measuring stick by which to judge today’s top-ranked golfer against the world’s greatest players that have preceded him.
In golf, numbers tell the tale whether it’s that of a hole, round, season and, yes, even career. This past Thursday, Tiger made the 300th start of his impressive 17-year campaign on the Tour at its most signature event, and a look at his own personal numbers again demonstrate there’s never been a player quite like him in the history of professional golf as of this very moment in his career.
And just to drive home that point, he went ahead and won the Players Championship on a dramatic Sunday at TPC Sawgrass in typical Tiger style.
Victories. No one has had so many so fast. Majors. Same story, different verse. Awards. More of the same. In fact, by any numerical measurable this side of age, Tiger has bested any golfer before him through the same number of career starts.
Considering his still relatively tender age of 37, at least in golf years, it’s unlikely the march of time is going to change that fact as Tiger continues to compile victories at the pace he has the past couple years.
In his now 300 starts, Woods has won 78 times, including Sunday's victory, which was his second in the PGA Tour's most significant event. It’s a clip of 26 percent, which for the math-challenged among us means he wins one out of every four times he tees it up. From a historical perspective, Woods' total to date is nine more wins than Sam Snead owned at the same point of his stellar career decades ago.
That’s important because “The Slammer” is the only golfer with more PGA Tour wins than Tiger currently has to his credit. His total of 82 triumphs is still now four better than Tiger, but if we are using the 300 measuring stick, Woods has bettered Snead and any other golfer over the same period of time and arguably during a far more competitive era of golf.
Considering Woods will likely win four or more events a year based on his current form, it’s likely Snead’s record will fall to Tiger sometime next year.
That said, it’s well-documented that Woods has never measured career success in Cadillac Championship titles or triumphs at Bay Hill. To the contrary, Tiger defines himself by major titles and there’s no arguing his 14 still pales in comparison to Jack Nicklaus’ well-documented 18. That said, Nicklaus owned only 12 major championships at the time of his 300th career start—two fewer than Woods has through that same number.
How many major championship starts did it take for Nicklaus to get 14 as compared to Tiger you ask? Again, this one favors Woods, and with a significant amount of cushion. Tiger won his 14th major on a broken knee at Torrey Pines in 2008 in his 46th career start as a professional. Nicklaus won his 14th major title in start 56. That minus-10 start differential actually represents two-and-half-years of competition, a fairly significant period of time.
Of course, it’s important to note that Woods made his 300th start at 37, while Nicklaus was only 35 when he hit the mark. The importance of that numerical fact will play out on the back end of Tiger’s career as to whether he can continue to win majors at the age of 46 as the Golden Bear did in the '86 Masters. But, at the moment, it’s neither here nor there because we aren't predicting the future here.
Barring the unforeseeable, there’s little debate that the argument of best ever player will be concentrated on Nicklaus and Woods. That said, reasonable minds will disagree on what Woods’ future will look like, but when it comes to comparing his present with Jack’s present back in the past, the argument remains in Tiger’s camp.
In addition to his advantage in majors, Woods has 24 more PGA Tour victories than Nicklaus during the same 300-start stretch. During similar periods of their career, their per-season starts are similar, but Tiger’s percentage of victory ranks much higher—26 percent against Jack’s 18 percent.
The question of whether Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Snead played in a more competitive era than Tiger has magnified and is largely a subjective argument. What isn't arguable are the numbers posted by the respective players and the results they deliver.
Since 1937, the PGA Tour has awarded the Vardon Trophy to the player with the lowest average score per round during a season. From the period of 1999 to 2009, Tiger won the award a staggering eight times, including five straight from 1999 to 2003.
By contrast, Snead and Arnold Palmer won the Vardon Trophy only four times and Tom Watson and Greg Norman just three times. As for Nicklaus, not once did the Golden Bear claim the Vardon, while Lee Trevino took five during Jack’s prime. Bottom line—there’s the Nicklaus domination of the '70s, and then there’s a whole different level of dominance that was Tiger in the late '90s and through the first decade of this century.
Because there is no comparing Woods to modern-day players, it’s left to determine his place in history by looking to the past. To do it, we must consider the numbers both overall and how they compare at comparable points in time.
By that measure, Woods “at 300” is yet again simply better than anyone else before. Whether that remains true in the future depends entirely on what Tiger does with the remainder of his career, but his current path suggests he will ultimately be regarded as the best-ever professional golfer.