It is a point that is made over and over again. Not just when Tiger Woods is being compared to Jack Nicklaus, but when any modern golfer is compared to one from a generation ago. We are told that the Nicklaus generation golfer faced a top heavy field, while the Tiger Woods era golfer faced a much deeper overall field that wasn't quite as strong at the top.
Some will even go a step further on the field strength of today. The argument goes that if Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els had played in the Nicklaus era, they would have won more often. Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, on the other hand, would have been less successful against the competition of today. Mickelson and Els combine for eight Major Championships. Palmer and Player dwarfed that total with 16 Major titles between them.
Arguing that fields are significantly deeper today than during the Nicklaus era has no basis in statistical reality. If fields today are so much stronger, a greater number of golfers should be winning in a season. However the statistics say that is not the case.
The time periods being compared are 1962-1972 and 1997-2007. In 1962, Jack Nicklaus won his first major championship, a U.S. Open in which he defeated Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont. Tiger Woods won his first major at the Masters in 1997, obliterating the field in a 12 stroke victory.
For each year, the number of total tournaments was counted along with the number of golfers who won in that year. For instance in 1969, 45 tournaments were contested and a total of 33 different golfers won. The yearly totals were then added together.
From 1962-1972, there were 474 tournaments and a total of 329 yearly individual winners. From 1997-2007 there were 519 tournaments and a total of 369 yearly individual winners. Please note that the winners number is not the total amount of different golfers who won over the time span. It is simply the combined total of winners from each individual season.
Percentage-wise, the eras are extremely close. Dividing the winners number by the total tournaments gives us 69% for the Nicklaus era and 71% for the Tiger era. To further clarify, if 100 tournaments were played in the Nicklaus era, you would likely see 69 different winners. In the Tiger era you would likely see 71 different winners over 100 tournaments.
As for the number of total major champions over these time spans: The Nicklaus era saw seven different Masters champions, eight U.S. Open Champions, nine British Open champions and nine PGA Champions. The Tiger era saw seven Masters champions, nine U.S. Open champions, nine British Open champions and seven PGA Championship winners. One more total than the Nicklaus era.
If PGA Tour fields in the modern era of golf are so much deeper than they were in the Nicklaus era, the numbers would show it. What the numbers show is that the number of golfers winning now is virtually the same. Deeper fields should be producing more winners, but it's clear that is not what's occurring. It's logical to conclude that the depths of today's tournament fields are being overrated.
Statistics were taken from PGATour.com