Why Jack Nicklaus Is Not the Best Golfer in History, Part Three: Bobby Jones

Lou VozzaAnalyst IOctober 24, 2008

This is Part Three in a series in which I am comparing the great golfers of the past to Jack Nicklaus, who is generally acknowledged as the best golfer in history. It is my contention that Jack's place as the best golfer of all time is disputable.

In Parts One and Two,  I reviewed the careers of Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen. Today's subject is Bobby Jones.  

Robert T. Jones Jr. is a unique figure in American golf because he never turned professional. He was the last in a tradition of aristocratic amateur players who dominated 19th Century British golf. He was also their greatest champion and perhaps the greatest champion ever.

He's difficult to compare straight up with Nicklaus, mostly because he competed in two completely different events that were considered "majors" in his era: the U.S. and British Amateur Championships.

For the purposes of this argument, we will consider both events full majors and the equivalent of the PGA Championship and Master's Tournament of Nicklaus's era.

Here is Jones' record in his majors:

U.S. Open

Events played.....11
Events won.........4
Second Place......4
Top 5..................9
Top 10................10 (he never finished out of the top 11)

U.S. Amateur

Events played.....13
Second place......2

British Open

Events played......4

British Amateur

Events played.....3
Second place.......1


Events plays....29

Jones' career major winning percentage was an astounding 44 percent, compared to 29 percent for Vardon, 25 percent for Hagen, and 16 percent for Nicklaus. If you strip the amateur tournaments out and only include his records in the U.S. and British Opens, his winning percentage actually goes up to 47 percent.

Early Career

What many people don't know about Jones is that he was a teenage phenom. He created a huge sensation at age 14 when he reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at Merion (pictured above).  His extreme youth when he appeared on the national stage is the reason he was called "Bobby" his whole career.

He continued to stalk leaderboards at majors throughout his teenage years but didn't manage to actually win his first, the U.S. Open, until the age of 21.  

He may have been the first golfer tagged by the press with the ignominious, pressure-inducing moniker, "best player to never win a major." It's perhaps unfair to criticize Jones in this regard because he was a mere boy during this period.

It should be seen as a positive that he was able to compete at the highest level of competitive golf well before our other contenders. Also, he won his first major at an earlier age than any of them.   

Nonetheless, Vardon, Nicklaus and Hagen never had a significant period in their long careers when they developed a reputation for not being able to close the deal on the big stage. Jones did. Then again, no one has ever gone on to prove their detractors wrong in as resounding a fashion as Jones.

The Streak

He is most famous for his "Grand Slam," when he won all four majors in the same calender year of 1930. What he is less famous for is a blazing eight-year streak between 1923 and 1930, when he finished either first or second in 18 of the 21 majors he entered. This included winning three out of three British Opens. No golfer has ever come anywhere close to being that dominant over the similar length of time.

Another important argument in Jone's favor is his success at match play. As I explained in the Walter Hagen post, match-play events are much more difficult to win than stroke play events. Six of Jones' 13 majors were match-play victories. This makes his eight-year streak that much more impressive.


Another positive in Jones' career was his role in popularizing the sport. He was one of the most beloved sports heroes of the 1920s. He was given two ticker-tape parades down Broadway and is rightfully considered the father of American golf.   

As an example of how far his influence has reached into the future, consider that Jack Nicklaus's father, Charlie, was a 13-year-old watching from the gallery when Jones won the 1926 Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, OH. 

As an adult, Charlie became a member at Scioto, and that's where he taught his son Jack to play golf. He instilled in his son a deep admiration of Jones, which inspired and drove Jack his entire career, much as Tiger Wood's was motivated to excel by Jack's career many years later.

Not to be forgotten also is his greatest legacy, the Augusta National Golf Course and the Master's tournament, both of which were his brainchild.  


Jones retired from competitive golf after he won the Grand Slam in 1930, when he was only 28 years old. Even though he finished with by far the highest major winning percentage in history at 44 percent, his early retirement raises two key objections to naming him the greatest golfer of all time.

1) We're already engaging in a leap of faith with Vardon and Hagen by projecting potential total major victories based in their career winning percentages. But Vardon and Hagen at least demonstrated consistent ability to win majors over the entire course of their careers.

They also had extraordinary longevity when it came to competing in majors. Hagen finished third at the US Open at the age of 43 and Vardon finished second in the US Open at the age of 50.

Jones pretty much had one eight-year streak. A significant amount of time, no doubt, but short enough that it is highly questionable to project him with a 51 major total, which is how many he would have won if he had maintained his major-winning percentage and had played in 118 majors as Jack did.  

Given the extreme nervous strain that in part caused him to retire and the later tragic physical problems he developed, it is unlikely Jones would have reached anywhere near 50 major victories if he had continued playing.   

2) The simple fact that he quit is even more significant. There is some virtue in a great athlete going out at the top, and Jones certainly did that, retiring immediately after winning the Grand Slam. However, when attempting to determine whether a sportsman is the greatest of all time at his sport, career longevity and commitment to the game are primary considerations.  

Keep in mind that we're comparing him to Harry Vardon, who rose up off his death bed at age 30 and continued to win majors until the age of 44; or Ben Hogan, who was almost killed in a car accident in 1949, but soldiered on to have his best winning years in the 1950s. That's the kind of grit and life long determination we want to see from the greatest golfer of all time.

Next week we'll discuss Hogan.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.