There is no question that Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 career major championship titles is the pinnacle of professional golf.
Golf’s four professional majors have been, and continue to be, the most important golf events in the world.
That being said, they are not the only important professional golf events in the world, and perhaps we often pay too much attention to how many major titles a player has won and too little attention to all of their other career achievements in the game.
Tiger Woods currently has 14 major championships. Woods will likely add to that number at some point, but his chances of winning more majors than Nicklaus appear to be dwindling by the day. Throughout the course of human history, no one has been able to predict the future with any real sense of accuracy, but let’s just say that it is somewhat unlikely that a 38-year-old golfer who has not won a major in five years and is walking around with an injury report that more closely resembles that of an NFL lineman will win another five majors over the course of the next seven seasons (at which point Woods will be 45 years old).
So, if Woods does not win 18 or more major championships by the time his career concludes, does that automatically mean that Nicklaus was a better golfer?
Does Woods absolutely, positively need to win more majors than Nicklaus in order to be considered the greatest golfer of all time, or will his full body of work be enough to push him ahead of Nicklaus?
Woods’ career accomplishments to this point have been nothing short of just astonishing:
- Woods has won 79 PGA Tour events which is second only to Sam Snead’s 82 and is already six ahead of Nicklaus.
- Woods holds the record for both the lowest adjusted and unadjusted scoring average in PGA Tour history (2000—67.79 adjusted and 68.17 unadjusted)
- Woods has the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history.
- Woods is the only player in history to have won four professional majors in a row (The “Tiger Slam”).
- Woods holds the record for most consecutive cuts made at 142, which is an astonishing 37 more than Nicklaus’ longest streak of 105 consecutive cuts made.
- Woods been named both the PGA Tour and PGA of America player of the year a record 11 times.
- Woods has won the Vardon Trophy for the PGA Tour’s lowest adjusted scoring average a record nine times.
- In 1997, Woods became the youngest player and the first African-American to win the Masters and set the record for the largest margin of victory at the Masters (12 strokes).
- In 2000, Woods was the first player in U.S. Open history to finish double digits under par, and he also holds the record for the largest margin of victory in U.S. Open history (15 strokes).
- Woods posted the lowest 72-hole score in relation to par in Open Championship history in 2000 (19 under par) and holds the record for the largest margin of victory in Open Championship history (eight strokes in 2000).
- Woods posted the lowest PGA Championship score in relation to par twice (18 under par in 2000 and 2006).
- Woods is the only player in the history of golf to have won all four majors by a margin of five strokes or better at some point in his career.
- Woods won six consecutive USGA titles (3 U.S. Junior Amateurs followed by 3 U.S. Amateurs), and is the only player in history to have won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.
- Woods' career winning percentage is an astounding 27.2 percent. Just to put that into perspective, Nicklaus’ career winning percentage during his prime was 17.46 percent.
Based on these statistics, one would have a very difficult time arguing that Woods has not been the most dominant golfer in the history of the game. Simply look at how he has completely dominated his peers over the course of the past 15 years during an era when golf has become a global sport, which has in turn resulted in fields far deeper than at any other point in the game’s history.
Nicklaus himself said as much in his autobiography Jack Nicklaus: My Story:
In 1930, there were perhaps ten golfers, pro or amateur, who might defeat Bob Jones when everything was right for them. After my first few years as a pro, there were maybe 30 guys who could beat me if I wasn't playing my best. If I were out there today (1996), that number would be tripled.
Let’s, for arguments sake, say that Woods, who will be 38 in December, ends up with 16 majors and 95 PGA Tour wins, in addition to the long and distinguished list of accomplishments already listed in this article. Woods will have surpassed Nicklaus in virtually every category imaginable other than being two majors short of Nicklaus’ 18 (Woods is also unlikely to match Nicklaus’ 19 second-place finishes at the majors).
In light of all of Woods’ other accomplishments, would those two major championship titles be enough to push Nicklaus ahead of Woods in any listing of the greatest golfers of all time?
If so, then you would also need to put players such as Padraig Harrington and Larry Nelson ahead of Greg Norman in any ranking of the greatest golfers of all time, as each of these players has won more majors than Norman.
You would need to put Gary Player ahead of players such as Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Harry Vardon.
Player was certainly a great golfer in his prime, and he has nine major titles to prove that, but would anyone be prepared to put him a notch above the likes of Snead, Jones, Sarazen and Vardon?
The fact of the matter is that majors, just like the World Series in baseball and the Super Bowl in football, are the most important events in the game.
But a player’s performance in these events or games alone should not be all that is considered when truly evaluating the greatness of one’s career.
Is Eli Manning a better quarterback than Peyton Manning based on his performances in the Super Bowl?
Is Ben Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl titles, a better quarterback than Dan Marino, who never won a Super Bowl?
If Woods were to wind up with 16 majors and 95 PGA Tour wins, it would of course still be debatable who the greatest golfer of all time is. Aside from Woods and Nicklaus, one could certainly throw the likes of Jones, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Vardon, Snead, Nelson, etc. into the conversation as well.
Jones and Nelson retired at a young age, and Vardon went virtually his whole career competing in just one major championship per year (the Open Championship).
Hagen won 11 majors during his career. However, during Hagen’s era, the Western Open—which he won five times—was considered by most to be a major championship. Hagen also attended the Open Championship just six times during his prime and was past his prime when the Masters began in 1934. So Hagen essentially won 11 majors while competing in an average of about two-and-a-half majors per year.
Hogan won nine majors while attending just one Open Championship and competing in just three PGA Championships (which were stroke-play events at the time that required 36-hole final matches) after his 1949 car accident.
There are many angles one can take when truly evaluating the greatest golfers of all time, which is why it would be incredibly ignorant to say that Woods will never be considered the greatest golfer of all time unless he breaks Nicklaus’ record of 18 career major titles, or that Player automatically had a better career than the likes of Snead, Jones, Sarazen and Vardon because he won more majors than them.
Majors are a huge part of professional golf, but they are not the be-all and end-all through which to measure greatness in the game.
If Woods were to finish his career one or two major championship titles short of Nicklaus’ 18, casual and non-educated golf fans would immediately conclude that Woods' inability to break Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors automatically means that Nicklaus is still the greatest golfer of all time. However, golf historians and true fans of the game would have an extremely difficult time evaluating Woods’ entire body of work and not, at the very least, concluding that Woods needs to be front and center in any conversation of the greatest golfers of all time.