Whenever critics attempt to bring Tiger Woods’ career accomplishments down a notch or two, they almost always play the competition card.
Critics will often proclaim that Woods faced a level of competition far weaker than many of the game’s all-time greats from previous generations, such as Jack Nicklaus.
While this argument may hold some weight, one could also quite easily contend that Woods faced off against far deeper fields which contained many more great players from every corner of the globe.
This is an argument that Nicklaus himself supported within his own autobiography, Jack Nicklaus: My Story, where Nicklaus discusses how he only needed to worry about a small handful of players during his prime, even if he was not playing well. Nicklaus then went on to state that today (1997, which was when his autobiography was published), that number would be tripled.
In 2013, Nicklaus echoed his 1997 stance on the matter of competition when he told The Associated Press that Woods faces "as many good players as we've ever had in the game."
But that is all old news.
Time marches on, and we have now entered the Rory McIlroy era of professional golf, which of course brings with it a new great debate: Will McIlroy face tougher competition than Woods faced during his prime?
The top four players during the Woods era could be considered Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.
Mickelson has won 51 professional events, including five majors and 42 PGA Tour titles.
Els has won four majors, 19 PGA Tour events and 67 events worldwide.
Singh has won three majors, 34 PGA Tour events and 59 total events worldwide.
And during this era, Woods managed to win 79 PGA Tour events, including 14 major championship titles.
These four players won, and they won often during their primes.
In addition to Mickelson, Els and Singh, Woods also faced off against other very good players between 1997 and 2008.
Mark O’Meara captured two majors in the late 1990s and won 32 events around the world during his career.
David Duval won 13 PGA Tour events, including one major, during a mere five-year stretch between 1997 and 2001.
Retief Goosen has won 43 events around the world during his career, including two major championships.
Padraig Harrington is only four years older than Woods and has captured three majors and 30 tournament titles around the world during his career.
Now, let’s examine some of McIlroy’s top competitors.
Aside from McIlroy, Adam Scott is probably the most established player of this current generation, with 27 worldwide wins, although much of Scott’s career also took place during the Woods era. However, Scott has captured just one major title, and only 11 of Scott’s wins have come on the PGA Tour, which is the tour he plays full-time.
Jason Day is 27 years old, has won just three PGA Tour titles and has yet to capture his first major.
Jordan Spieth is obviously just getting started in his career, but to date he has only two PGA Tour titles, both of which have come at fairly weak-fielded events.
Dustin Johnson has nine PGA Tour wins but no majors at the age of 30.
Rickie Fowler has just one PGA Tour win to his name in more than five years out on tour.
Patrick Reed has captured four PGA Tour wins in his young career, but he has yet to even crack the top-35 at any major.
Bill Haas has six PGA Tour wins at the age of 32 but has yet to crack the top-10 in 19 major championship appearances.
Hunter Mahan is 32 years old and has just six PGA Tour wins, none of which have been majors.
At the age of 28, Keegan Bradley has three PGA Tour wins including a major, but he hasn’t won a tournament anywhere in the world in more than two years.
Webb Simpson has four PGA Tour wins, including one major, but at the age of 29 Simpson has not won anywhere in the world since October of 2013.
Martin Kaymer could very well wind up being McIlroy’s toughest competitor in the same age range. Kaymer already has two major championship titles and 15 worldwide wins at the age of 30.
The McIlroy generation is, of course, still developing. Young players such as Spieth, Reed, Day and Fowler will undoubtedly continue to develop and will win many more tournaments around the world. These talented young players will also more than likely accumulate some major championship hardware before their careers have concluded.
But can anyone even fathom players such as Spieth, Reed, Day or Fowler having careers even remotely as successful as the top players from Woods’ generation?
Are any of these players on pace to win 40 or more tournaments around the world, including multiple major championship titles?
Does anyone foresee Spieth picking up 42 PGA Tour wins?
Does anyone foresee Fowler winning 67 events around the world?
Does anyone foresee Reed capturing 59 worldwide titles?
If the one knock on Woods is that he faced weaker competition than many great players from previous generations, what are the critics possibly going to say about the competition McIlroy is likely to face during his prime?
Woods’ top competition racked up huge numbers of wins around the globe, including multiple major championship titles.
McIlroy’s top competition simply doesn’t win.
One could, of course, argue that McIlroy has already faced and will continue to face extremely deep fields containing a large number of outstanding players from around the world.
But it would be quite difficult to make that argument while not also concluding that Woods faced far deeper competition than Nicklaus and other great players from previous generations.
The number of strong players from around the world increased dramatically between Nicklaus and Woods and has continued to increase between Woods and McIlroy.
This is a view that Nicklaus took back in 1997 and doubled down on in 2013.
If we look solely at the success of the very top players in the game and ignore the depth of the field, then it would be easy to conclude that Nicklaus faced better competition than Woods based on the number of major championship titles accumulated by players such as Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson.
But if we are then going to take that same approach to compare the level of competition between the Woods and McIlroy eras, one would have to conclude that Woods will have faced far better competition than McIlroy is likely to face, as it is doubtful that any player from McIlroy’s generation will be as successful as the likes of Els, Singh and Mickelson on a worldwide stage based on their current pace.
While the comparison of levels of competition between different eras is as much a matter of opinion as anything else, the least we can do is to remain consistent in how we formulate these opinions.
If we are focusing on only the top players in the game, then the opinion one must form is that Nicklaus faced better competition than Woods and Woods has faced better competition that McIlroy is likely to face.
However, if we are factoring in the depth of the field as a major part of how you measure levels of competition, then one must form the opinion that Woods faced better competition than Nicklaus and McIlroy could very well face better competition than Woods.
All of this is, once again, completely a matter of opinion. But if you are going to have an opinion on the matter, you might as well use a consistent form of criteria upon which to formulate those opinions.