Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus: Major No.18 Doesn't Mean Everything

Tim StareContributor IIDecember 28, 2010

It has been a little over one year since Tiger Woods’ world changed forever.  While not asked as often as it was prior to that, and prior to his injuries when he was winning major championships on a fairly regular basis, the question still remains:  “Will Tiger equal or surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major golf championships?” 

The next question is, if he does break Jack’s record, does he automatically become the consensus “Greatest Golfer of All Time”? 

To my astonishment, many believe there would be no question.  More incredibly, some have granted him that title already, even though he remains four victories shy of Jack’s total.  They base this on the popular belief that today’s players are better athletes and are a tougher, more seasoned, and hardened breed of competitor than what Jack was up against in his era. 

As for me, I’m not sure I am ready to grant Tiger the title “Greatest Ever” even if he does surpass Jack’s major victories total. 

“Heresy!” you say? 

When all is said and done, Tiger may well be awarded that title based on his number of total major victories alone. However, the manner in which each man arrived at his final career major championship total must also be taken into consideration when determining his over-all “greatness”. 

The two biggest questions for me are, first, what did each man have to deal with and overcome personally along the way?  This is especially important in the early years when getting established as a professional and building the confidence and honing the physical tools to win majors can be the most difficult. 

Second, who had the tougher competition in his respective era?

Regarding the first question, Tiger—who from the first day he teed it up as a professional in 1996—had a guaranteed multi-million dollar endorsement contract with Nike.  This clearly reduced the pressure on him to play, let alone perform well on a week-in and week-out basis in order to put food on his table.

With this contract came the ability to purchase a private jet with which to get around the country.  He stayed in the nicest hotels or rented spacious homes at each tournament site.  It allowed him to pick and choose the tournaments in which to play, at courses that set up well for his game. 

The luxury of a guaranteed income also allowed him to take time off to work with—and pay—a top swing coach in preparation for the major championships.  Most importantly, he was single and childless and remained so for fully the first eight years of his professional career, enabling him to do nothing but focus on golf and on amassing major victories in his quest to catch up with and surpass Jack. 

Contrast Tiger’s early career with that of Jack, who came onto the professional scene as a married man who already had a child.  He and his wife Barbara would have two more children by the time he was in his third year as a professional.

Eventually, Jack, too, would enjoy a private jet, the best accommodations available, and the luxury of picking and choosing when and where to play.  But in the early days, he and Barbara would drive from tournament to tournament, week in and week out, with a small trailer home in tow behind their car.  Sometimes the children would even travel with them. 

While he may have picked up a few early endorsements upon turning professional, they were hardly of the kind on which one could count to support a large family.  Winning as prolifically as he did in these early years of struggle as a young father, picking up fully one third of the professional majors that he owns while balancing the responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage is to me one of the most impressive things about his earliest achievements.

In regards to the question of which era housed the tougher competition, the argument many make for Tiger is that he is playing in an era where there is more pure golfing talent capable of winning a major in any given week, making it more difficult for Tiger to win than it was for Jack to do so.

The lengthy list of names of players who have won a single major over the past 10 years might bear the talent argument out. But, other than Tiger or Phil Mickelson, no one is really distinguishing himself at the majors on a consistent basis.  It seems that every year of the past decade we have been introduced to a first time major championship winner or two, sometimes more.

It is important to remember that talent is an indicator of potential. It is what is done with the talent that matters.  Greatness is achieved when superb talent is utilized to its maximum on a consistent basis. 

There may well be more individual players with talent today than in Jack’s era.  However, that talent has not been utilized to the extent that players of Jack’s era utilized their talent.  Most of today’s first time major winners fail to achieve greatness in becoming second, or even third or fourth time winners of majors. 

Were I Tiger, those are the guys that would scare me, should they exist.  It is this type of player that would at least make me look over my shoulder on occasion.   Those are the guys who have unlocked the mystery and gained the confidence not only to win a major, but to win majors (with an “s”). There is a huge difference. 

With each major victory comes an increase in confidence that translates to performance in the clutch under very difficult conditions. Any good tour player can get hot for a week, win a major, and then disappear into obscurity.  It is the guys who tee it up, knowing they can win majors that truly put the pressure on the great players and on each other. 

Except for Mickelson, and possibly one or two other players, Tiger has not had that kind of competition to deal with on a regular basis.  Jack, on the other hand, had guys who had won multiple majors coming after him at nearly every major tournament from the beginning to the end of his competitive playing career. 

Starting with Arnold Palmer, and moving on right through Tom Watson in his prime at the time of Jack’s last major victory, Jack played head to head against, and defeated, more players with three or more major championships than anyone in the history of the game.  

There were few Bob Mays, Zach Johnsons, Sean Micheels or Ben Curtises nipping at Jack’s heels on a Sunday afternoon at the majors.  Instead, week in and week out, from the early 1960’s through the mid 1980’s, he was staring down the likes of Palmer (seven majors),  Billy Casper (three), Tom Watson (eight), Lee Trevino (six), Gary Player (nine), Seve Ballesteros (five), Raymond Floyd (four), Hale Irwin (three) and Julius Boros (three).

Contrast this with the list of multiple-major winners in their primes that Tiger has had to do battle with over the course of his entire career to date: Mickelson (four), V.J. Singh (three) and Padraig Harrington (three). That’s it.  The rest of his challengers have all been pretenders or, at best, “one hit wonders”, unless you include Retief Goosen, who was hot briefly earlier in the decade with two major victories in a very short period of time.

As far as individual major tournament statistics go, over the span of time it took both Jack and Tiger to reach their first 14 major victories, the comparison looks like this:

Jack:   55 starts, 14 wins, 42 top-tens, 37 top-fives, 32 top-threes and 11 runner-ups.

Tiger: 53 starts, 14 wins, 29 top-tens, 25 top-fives, 21 top-threes and five runner ups.

After we get past the number of starts and wins, which are nearly identical, Jack blows Tiger out of the water in the area of being a major factor in the tournaments that he did not end up winning.

And, again, Jack’s amazing numbers were amassed against multiple players who knew how to win multiple majors, as opposed to being amassed mostly against the “upstart of the week”.  In other words, Jack played against and defeated a much higher caliber of competition than Tiger has ever had to face or defeat.   

Even when Jack did not win, he was a factor in the outcome far more often than Tiger has been when he did not go on to win.  Tiger is either hot or cold.  When he is hot he is as hot, or hotter, than anyone has ever been.  But as far as consistency goes— which is a combination of winning, and being in strong contention when he didn’t win— Jack was the better player.

At his peak, for the entire decade of the 1970’s, Jack finished out of the top 10 only five times in majors.  That is 40 majors with 35 top tens, 27 top-fives and 21 top-threes, including eight runner-ups.  All against players who knew how to win majors, and did.

In the 1980’s, after turning 40 years old and being written off by many as being finished at the majors, he won three more, had 13 top-tens and three more runner ups.

Some are tempted, as they do with other sports, to make the claim that today’s players are just simply better athletes than those of past generations.  The claim (or assumption) is that most of today’s players, if transported back 30 years, would dominate their respective sports.  I must admit that today’s 300+ pound defensive ends that can run a 4.7 forty would likely have dominated against 1970’s NFL players who were much smaller and slower than players are today. 

However, golf is probably the most mental game of all, relying less on speed and strength and more on one’s ability to manage a golf course and their game based on their own strengths and physical abilities.

While equipment has improved and players are believed to be more physically fit in general than they were 30 years ago, courses have also been lengthened to compensate for the technology. 

The fitness thing is another matter.  I look a Phil Mickelson, and I don’t think “fit”.  Arnold Palmer drew more “Oohs” and “Aahh’s” for his physique than Phil ever will.  Gary Player is still considered one of, if not the, fittest golfer of all time.

It is a little known fact that Jack Nicklaus won the long drive contest at the 1963 PGA Championship with a drive in excess of 341 yards that was struck with a small headed wooden driver and with a ball that would be considered “dead” by today’s standards.  I shudder to think what Jack, in his prime, could have done with the equipment Tiger uses.

I am not trying to demean Tiger or what he has done.  He is amazing and I am honored to have lived at a time when I have been able to witness both men dominate their respective eras.

I just want to make sure that before today’s golf writers and younger fans, many of whom know of Jack’s feats only through the eyeball of videotape, crown Tiger as “the best ever” that they really take a close look at not only the numbers, but how each of these great players arrived where they did. 

Jack deserves his place at the top of the list of the all time greatest players.  Knowing how Jack respects Tiger, I think he would be happy to share that title with Tiger should Tiger win major championship number 18. 

Should Tiger win major championship number 18, or even number 19 or beyond, I would caution anyone too anxious to demote Jack to second place on the all time list to please remember one thing: How someone got to where they ended up, rather than just where they ended up, goes a long way in determining how great they truly were.


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