If Tiger Woods wins the Masters this weekend, he won’t need any more major titles to supplant Jack Nicklaus as golf’s greatest player.
There, I said it. Call me a heretic, tell me I’m too dumb to handle basic math, accuse me of generational ignorance – I can take your barbs. But first, hear me out.
A fifth green jacket would give Woods 15 professional major championships. Even I can figure that’s still three shy of Nicklaus’ record total of 18 – the ultimate standard by which golf greatness is judged. My problem is, it’s become the only standard.
See, I actually lend weight to winning non-majors, and Woods’ next victory will be 73rd of his career. Guess who he’ll tie for second place all-time, behind Sam Snead’s 84? That’s right, one mighty Golden Bear.
Here’s my bottom line in declaring Tiger this close to knocking off Nicklaus: We’re judging the greatest golfer of all-time, not the greatest at winning major championships. I know they’re considered one and the same, but they shouldn’t be. I’ll use an admittedly imperfect analogy to illustrate:
John Daly has won two major titles and five tournaments in all. Tom Kite won just a single major, but 19 total events. Who do you consider the better player? (Granted, Kite couldn’t hang five minutes with Big John in a casino, a strip club, or a contest to see who could withdraw from a tournament fastest. But I digress.)
I could cite a dozen more examples, but you get the idea. I contend that Tiger Woods at his peak was better than Jack Nicklaus at his peak, and that Woods’ brilliance lasted long enough – and produced enough major titles – to anoint him the best ever.
If, that is, he wins a 15th major and either:
1) Surpasses Snead’s record for total wins, or
2) Succumbs to injuries, a sex-addiction relapse or other unforeseen circumstance that renders him unable to play.
Let’s not discuss path No. 2. Wouldn’t want to jinx the man, would we?
As for the first path, it shouldn’t be hard to navigate considering Woods’ resounding victory at Bay Hill and the state of his game heading to Augusta.
At age 36, he’s still one of golf’s longest hitters and a deadly iron player, with a ridiculous short game and a putter that’s emerged after two years in hiding. If guys like Kenny Perry, Vijay Singh and Fred Couples can compete in their late-40s and beyond, you can bet the ultra-fit Woods will be able to.
Yeah, you argue, but he’ll still be three majors short of Nicklaus. To which I respond, so what? Let’s say Woods finishes with 90 career wins – hardly a far-fetched estimate. (If anything, it’s tough to fathom Woods winning 17 more tourneys without at least one being a major.)
Combine 15 majors and 90 total wins and, it says here, you’re looking at the greatest golfer to ever lace ’em up.
We could debate Woods vs. Nicklaus on any number of points: Margins of major victories, wins in significant non-majors (i.e. the Players), quality and depth of competition, overall winning percentage, record when leading/trailing after three rounds, etc… I feel safe saying Tiger would come out ahead, but not decisively.
We could look at their close calls in majors. Woods has had his share, but he’s unlikely to catch Nicklaus’ record of 19 runner-up finishes. (That’s an astounding 37 first- and second-place showings, according to my calculator.)
We could even go back to their pre-professional days — when Tiger won three U.S. Amateurs to Jack’s two – or even junior golf, where Tiger claimed an unprecedented three U.S. Junior Ams to zero for Nicklaus. (To be fair, Nicklaus was a stupendous junior and collegiate player, beating a host of pros to win the Ohio Open at age 16 and nearly winning the 1960 U.S. Open.)
From a more subjective standpoint, we could compare their games side by side, club by club, skill for skill. The differences are slim in all but one area, the short game, where Woods beats Nicklaus in a bunker-sand landslide. We might appraise the two men’s efforts in the clutch, though neither has many failures to apologize for.
I’ll save all that for another day, in the event I need to state my case with more authority.
Until then, I think we can agree on this: Comparing Woods and Nicklaus is like pitting The Godfather against its stellar sequel, agonizing whether to stay at the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, or choosing your dream ride – Ferrari or Lamborghini?
There’s really no wrong answer.
P.S. I’m not as young as I (like to think I) look. I grew up worshipping Jack Nicklaus, and I have a VHS copy of the 1986 Masters to prove it. Now if only I had a VCR…
Daniel Mitchell is a golf writer who lives in Jupiter, Fla., a few miles from Tiger Woods as the crow flies but worlds away in every other respect. An avid golfer since age 12, Mitchell carries a (shaky) single-digit handicap, investing far more time in his dogs than his swing.