Men's Golf: Who Is the Greatest Player Ever?

A DimondSenior Analyst IJuly 12, 2008

It seems like in every sport, the question ‘Who is the greatest ever?’ is never very far from discussion.

The discussion is invariably lengthier in team sports, where the wider range of players gives armchair fans more scope for personal preference.

In football, the discussion may boil down to Pele and Maradona, but only after discussing the relative merits of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, and even (amongst the more foolish observers, at least at this stage in his career) Cristiano Ronaldo.

Few team sports have clear-cut ‘greatest evers’—the mercurial Welsh fly half Garth Edwards may have a solid claim to be the greatest rugby player ever, but it is hardly uncontested.

In cricket, there are too many contenders to mention. Where, for instance, do you begin to compare Donald Bradman and Brian Lara?

In the USA, the Hall of Fame was invented to recognise great players, yet already many are overcrowded with deserving talent.

As a result, even basketball legend Michael Jordan faces the frequent de-construction of his legacy by commentators who believe that a more worthy (and less high profile) competitor has been overlooked.

Amongst individual sportsmen, however, it is perhaps easier to reach a conclusion—predominantly because statistics and titles offer an obvious yardstick.

Best darts player ever? That’ll be 13-time world champion Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, thanks.

The ultimate cyclist? Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong would appear the obvious choice.

Sometimes titles muddy the water though. For example, when attempting to find the premier tennis player of all time, Peter Sampras has the most Grand Slam titles with 14.

Roger Federer only has 12, but he does hold the record for most consecutive weeks as World No. 1 (215 weeks and counting). Who does that make the better player?

What about John McEnroe, he holds the most titles (147 - singles and doubles)? Does that put him in the mix? Bjorn Borg won 89.9 percent of his Grand Slam matches; surely that warrants his claim?

Golf is similar to tennis in this respect, in that there are many players who have warranted their shot at being the "greatest ever." Yet, unlike tennis, the list of genuine contenders is rather short. The general media would have you believe there are just two: Jack Nicklaus and Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.

Jack Nicklaus, born Jan. 21, 1940, revolutionised the game when he emerged on the scene. He rewrote the rulebook on golf (not literally, that would have been like cheating).

His prodigious length in particular made many reconsider what it took to be great at the game, and success was almost immediate. Ridiculed for being a bit on the large side (he had to put up with often vitriolic abuse from Arnold Palmer’s masses of fans), he came into the professional game as undoubtedly the best amateur.

Over the course of his professional career, he won 18 major titles and a further 94 tour titles. While this in itself is record-breaking, he managed all this while facing two generations of great golfers. 

Early in his career, he had to contend with Arnold Palmer (seven majors) and Gary Player (nine). Later on, it was Tom Watson (eight) and Lee Trevino (six).

Nicklaus won his last major at the age of 46, a feat that amazed the world.  Once 50, he proved that the golfing gift had not left him, winning 8 Senior Majors in just six years.

Age simply could not pin him down. In 1998, he rolled back the years and finished tied for sixth at the U.S. Masters, a remarkable achievement.

The career of Tiger Woods (born Dec. 30, 1975) shares many parallels with that of Nicklaus. In 1997, Tiger redefined the parameters to golf that Nicklaus had laid down years earlier, with a 12-stroke demolition of the field at the US Masters.

Just for comparison, the previous year's winner (and dominant player of the era) was one Nick Faldo. Quite.

Tiger won three straight U.S. Amateur titles before landing on the PGA Tour in 1996 with two (scripted) words that rang from coast to coast: "Hello World."

He turned pro with just seven tournaments remaining to earn his card for the next year (without having to go to the dreaded Q-School), and pundits were divided as to whether he would earn enough prize money to scrape into the Top 125.

His father had a different view, “Give Tiger seven tournaments, he’s bound to win one,” he said. Earl Woods was wrong—Tiger won twice.

Conventional wisdom suggests that when (not if) Tiger surpasses Nicklaus’ record of 18 Majors (he currently has 13), he will take the crown of best golfer to ever play the game.

At total of 88 wins worldwide and a career Grand Slam at just 32 obviously demonstrate excellence, but there must be question marks about his legacy.

As mentioned above, Nicklaus went through his whole career facing a litany of consummate golfers, but whom has Tiger had to overcome? His nearest rival, Phil Mickelson, has just three majors to his name.

Nicklaus always knew his rivals would threaten him come the back nine on Sunday. More often than not, Tiger has simply seen his competition get blown away in the wind.

The ability to almost will the ball into the hole is a trait that both Tiger and Jack share, but among Jack’s contemporaries, Trevino, Watson and Player all demonstrated a similar ability. That's why Jack had to settle for second in a major no less than 19 times.

Who has performed similar heroics when facing Tiger? Mickelson has taken his victories when Tiger has been off the boil, so until someone goes toe-to-toe on a consistent basis, can we call Tiger the best player ever to grace the game?

Does this mean, then, we are left without a conclusion to the debate, sitting on the fence until Tiger surpasses Jack? Fortunately, to quote one famous high street bank, there is another way.

Born in 1902, the case for the player in question is not a fashionable one. But 13 Majors and the accolade of being the only person (so far) to win the Grand Slam (or the ‘Impregnable Quadrilateral’ as it was rather snazzily known at the time) all before his retirement at the age of 28 make the case of Robert Tyre Jones a more than valid one.

First things first: ignore the modern wisdom that says Jones only won seven major titles. His six victories in the US or British Amateur should certainly be counted.

In his day, the field was as strong as in professional events and were more highly regarded in what was still very much a traditionalist’s game. Jones, while by no means financially secure, opted not to turn professional out of respect for the history of the game, and also respect to his father, who wanted him to learn a ‘proper’ profession.

As a result, Jones studied hard in conjunction with his golf. He first completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering, then another in English Literature (at Harvard), before passing his law qualifications just one year later.

He did all of this while beating dedicated golf professionals on a regular basis. According to peers, he was one of the nicest men you could hope to meet, generous with his time and scrupulously honest.

In the 1925 U.S. Open, he called a two-shot penalty on himself after observing his ball move at address. No one else had seen the infringement, indeed marshals and fans alike attempted to persuade him to change his mind.

Determined to uphold the rules, Jones ensured the penalty stood, and when praised for his sportsmanship after the round simply replied, “You might as well thank me for not robbing a bank.” He lost the event by one stroke.

But it was not for his sportsmanship that Bobby Jones was inducted into golf’s Hall of Fame. Jones’ will surely be remembered for his historic grand slam, achieved in 1930 when he was just 28.

Remember, in these days performing such a feat was not easy. Crossing the Atlantic for the British Open and Amateur took six weeks (if weather was favourable) where it was difficult to get any practice in.

Similarly, both events were hosted on links courses, designs that required a different type of shot-making to the variety Jones was used to employing.

Walter Hagen, an 11-time Major winning American of the era, struggled to break 100 when he experienced such a course for the first time, and Jones’ early experiences had not been favourable.

Making life harder for Jones, the British Amateur was in matchplay format, and the first couple of rounds were played over 18 holes, leveling the playing field to an extent that a shock victory would barely even be a shock.

Nonetheless, Jones overcame his opponents to take the title at St. Andrews, moved on to Royal Liverpool to collect the Open, and left Britain with his dream still alive.

He also left with the goodwill of an adopted nation – the St. Andrews faithful took to Jones like a son, and the 10th hole on the Old Course bears his name to this day.

Back in America, Jones overcame the professionals who sought to defeat him at the US Open, with a consummate five-shot victory that left one hurdle to overcome: the US Amateur, held at Merion.

The subject of his grand slam was the only topic of discussion amongst fans and media alike;  the country was gripped by his efforts. Again, matchplay was the format. Imagine the pressure he was under in every match!

Despite a few scares, Jones progressed to the final, where around 15,000 fans followed him to a convincing 8-and-7 victory. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream. With nothing left to prove, Jones promptly retired.

Considering Tiger is currently four years older than Bobby was when he retired, who knows what he would have achieved had he continued? Of the 30 majors he entered, Bobby won 13 and finished second another seven times—not bad, considering his first major was at the age of 13.

He went on to be instrumental in the foundation of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, arguably the greatest tournament in the world today. To the best of my knowledge, he is also the only person ever to receive two ticker-tape parades in New York City.

Tiger is often lauded for the impact he has had on the sport of golf, but Bobby had an impact on a nation. In the midst of the Great Depression, he inspired people to believe that anything could be achieved.

Successful in sport and academia (although his business ventures didn’t always pan out), it was a terrible shame that, for the last 23 years of his life, Bobby had to cope with the effects of Syringomyelia – a spinal disease that slowly caused paralysis. He died, wheelchair-bound, in 1971.

If Tiger is to be the greatest ever, you feel he has to not only match Nicklaus’ Major haul, but also Jones’ incredible Grand Slam. While the first part looks attainable, completing the ‘Impregnable Quadrilateral’ does not.

The mental strength and stamina, never mind the retention of such a high level of technical ability required for such a year-long pursuit, make it extremely unlikely it will ever be done again. If anyone can do it, Tiger can, and it would indisputably cement his position as the best ever.

You get the feeling, though, that, if he were around to witness it, Bobby would be the first to offer Woods his congratulations. Perhaps therein lies the real greatness of the man.



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