It is one of truisms of golf journalism that Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all time. His reputation rests on the fact that he has won 18 major championships, more than any golfer in history.
While that is surely an amazing achievement, I contend that 18 major championship wins is an unfair measuring stick to use when assessing the accomplishments of some of the great golfers of the past.
The term "major" itself first came into use in 1960, when Arnold Palmer began his season by winning both the Masters and the US Open. The press began to wonder if he could win all four marquee events in one year, as Bobby Jones had done.
In the calendar year of 1930, Jones won the four premier events of his era: the British Open, the US Open, the US Amateur and the British Amateur, completing the only "Grand Slam" in golf history.
By as early as 1940, professional golf had become so dominant over amateur golf that the US and British amateur tournaments were no longer considered marquee events and had been replaced by the Masters tournament and the PGA Championship as golf's two additional "majors."
From 1890's through the 1930's, with the exception of Jones, the most successful golfers were professionals. As pros, they weren't allowed to play in the US and British amateur tournaments. For this and several other reasons, they never had the opportunity to play in as many majors as Nicklaus.
When we examine their legacies carefully, especially their winning percentages in majors, we will find that Nicklaus' place as the greatest golfer in history is far from secure. I will begin this discussion with a review of the career of the British golfer Harry Vardon.
Vardon's competitive playing years spanned from 1893 to 1922. He won his first British Open at age 26 in 1896 and went on to win six British Opens in total. It is a record that still stands today.
Vardon won 62 golf tournaments in total and at one point won 14 in a row, another record that is unbroken to this day. He played in only three US Opens, finishing first in 1900, second in 1913 at age 43 (losing by a stroke to Francis Ouimet in the famous Open at Brookline) and incredibly second in 1920 at age 50.
He won his last British Open victory in 1914 at the age of 44, more or less matching Jack's heroic victory at the Masters as a 46 year old.
It might not seem overly impressive that in a playing career spanning 29 years Vardon only managed to win six British Opens, but consider this: in his prime in 1902-1903, he was stricken with a severe case of tuberculosis that nearly killed him.
In spite of this debilitating illness, he came back to win three more Open Championships. It is thought that a residual nerve problem in his hand from the bout with TB ruined his putting stroke and cost him several more championships after 1903.
Also consider that Vardon was on his hottest streak of his career between 1911 and 1914. During these four years he finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 1st in the Open. This streak was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One and The Open was cancelled for the next five years.
When competitive golf resumed, Vardon was 49 years old and rusty. It is reasonable to assume that he could have won at least one or maybe two more majors if it hadn't been for the war.
Despite these obstacles, between the ages of 23 and 44 Vardon played in 24 major championships and won seven of them. That's a 29 percent winning percentage.
Jack Nicklaus, on the other hand, played continuously and injury free between the ages of 22 and 46. During this time, he played in 112 majors and won 18 of them. That's a 16 percent winning percentage.
To put the winning percentages in perspective, if Vardon had maintained his career winning percentage and had played in as many majors as Jack Nicklaus, Vardon would have won 32 majors.
On the other hand, if Nicklaus has only played in 24 has Vardon did, he would have only won four majors.
So which man is the greatest golfer of all time?
Next post: Walter Hagen