Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods: Who Faces Tougher Competition?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2008

One of the most distorted views in golf is that Jack Nicklaus had far more competition during his playing years than Tiger Woods has today.

Many casual golf fans immediately think that Nicklaus played during golf’s golden age and was faced with more competition from greater players. 

The casual golf fan will associate Nicklaus’ competition with the likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, and Tom Watson.

For the casual golf fan, hearing the names Palmer, Player, Trevino, and Casper coupled together as Nicklaus’ main competitors immediately leads one to believe that Nicklaus faced some of the toughest competition imaginable during his career.

But, what the casual golf fan does not know is that during Nicklaus’s playing career, after Palmer, Player, Casper, Trevino, Watson, and a few others, the competition drops off like the continental shelf. 

Tiger Woods has had to compete against the likes of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk, and many other perennial PGA Tour winners.

But, Tiger has also had to compete against the likes of Rocco Mediate, Boo Weekly, Woody Austin, Hunter Mahan, Chad Campbell, Stephen Ames, J.B Holmes, Johnson Wagner, Ryuji Imada, Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry, and Chez Reavia. 

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Now, at this very moment you are probably thinking that I have completely lost my mind by naming players such as Hunter Mahan, Stephen Ames, and Chez Reavia as competition comparable to the likes of Palmer, Player, Trevino, Casper, and Watson.

My naming this group of players as Tiger’s competition, all of whom happen to be PGA Tour winners, is not to say that these players are comparable to Palmer, Player, Trevino, etc.

Clearly Johnson Wagner and J.B. Holmes are no Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.

This list of players is simply comprised to show that Tiger Woods is faced a far wider pool of legitimate competitors than Jack Nicklaus faced during his career.

In any given tournament, Jack Nicklaus was essentially playing against a field of four or five players, outstanding players be that as it may.

But, on any given week, Tiger Woods is playing against 150+ players that have a realistic, legitimate chance to win if they get hot that particular week.

In 1970, Jack Nicklaus was the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world; Player was No. 2, Casper No. 3, Palmer No. 4, and Trevino was ranked fifth.

Aside from Jack Nicklaus, Player, Casper, Palmer, and Trevino won nearly 18 percent of PGA Tour events. 

In 1972, the best year of Nicklaus’ career; a year that saw him win three out of the four majors, Nicklaus was ranked No. 1, Player No. 2, Trevino three, Bruce Crampton four, and Palmer five. 

In 1972, Player, Trevino, Crampton, and Palmer won 16 percent of PGA Tour events.

In 1999, the start of the "Tiger Slam," Tiger Woods was ranked No. 1 in the world, he was followed by David Duval, Colin Montgomery, Davis Love III, and Ernie Els.

In 1999, aside from Tiger Woods, the remainder of the top-five ranked players in the world won only 10 percent of PGA Tour events.

In 2000, other than Tiger Woods, the remainder of the top-five ranked players in the world won 11 percent of PGA Tour events.

In 2007, aside from Tiger Woods, the remaining members of the world’s top five won just 10 percent of PGA Tour events. 

So, what does all of this mean?

It basically means that whereas in Nicklaus’ era the top few players in the world won a significant number of PGA Tour events, in Tiger Woods' era there is far more parity which can be statistically seen in the lower percentage of events won by the top five golfers in the world. 

During the best part of Jack Nicklaus’ career, his main competitors were Tom Watson, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Billy Casper. 

Nicklaus’ main competitors won 29 percent of all major championships played during the prime of Nicklaus’ career.

During Tiger Woods' career, his main competitors in majors have been Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, and Jim Furyk. 

Woods’ competitors have won 22 percent of all majors during Woods’ career, again showing that the number of players with the ability to win a major has been far greater during Woods career than it was during Nicklaus’ career.

Clearly, Woods has a larger number of legitimate competitors to worry about each week than Nicklaus did.

But, looking at the other side of the coin, no one has really stepped up to consistently challenge Woods the way Palmer, Player, Trevino, Casper, and Watson challenged Nicklaus.

This can be viewed on two fronts though.

Are players such as Mickelson, Els, Singh, and Goosen just as good today as Palmer, Player, Trevino, Casper, and Watson were, and is Tiger just that much better than them?


Was Palmer, Player, Trevino, and Watson a lot better than Tiger’s competition, thus providing Nicklaus with tougher head-to-head competition each week?

Therein is where the main question lies. 

Clearly Tiger Woods has more competition on a whole to worry about, but Nicklaus appears to have had more direct competition.

Is that because Nicklaus’ game was at a lower level that allowed the other top-ranked players to catch him?


Is Tiger just that much better that his skill level allows him to exceed that of his direct competitors by a larger gap than Nicklaus was able to achieve?

Unless anyone has a time machine that can transport the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Casper, and Watson into today’s PGA Tour and the likes of Woods, Mickelson, Els, Goosen, and Singh into the PGA Tour of the '60s and '70s, that is one question that will never be answered.

Which is a more demanding situation, a far larger number of overall competitors or a smaller, more concentrated group of great competitors?

I personally believe that 150 legitimate competitors is a tougher challenge to face than a group of five or so great competitors. 

But then again, I have no way of knowing whether Nicklaus’ toughest competitors were indeed better than Woods’ toughest competitors, or whether Woods is that much better than Nicklaus that he has been able to distance himself from players that are equally as good as Nicklaus’ competitors were.

This is one argument that will wage for years to come, and I personally don’t have the answer to it.


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