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Jack or Tiger?

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.

Jack Nicklaus Tiger Woods

                                                                                      Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

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 MitchellDaniel 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.


  1. George McIntyre says:

    What is always overlooked by you “pundits” and “experts”, when making these comparisons is bearing, manners and sportsmanship.
    Woods is a truly wonderful golfer, but he will never replace Jack, Tom Watson, Arnie and their ilk, no matter how many tournaments he wins, in the hearts of those of us who truly care about the game.
    Although not solely reponsible for the stupid boorish and unsporting behaviour of, (mainly American), so called fans, he has never done anything to discourage it and his general manner, spitting etc. is a disgrace to the game and an awful example to youngsters.
    I personally would not miss his presence if he was never seen on a golf course again.
    ps I would like to make it clear that his personal life and indiscetions have no bearing on my feelings toward him, but I have held this opinion since long before such things were made public.

    • Golf Newz says:

      Hi George,
      Thanks for the feedback. Your opinion of Tiger and how he handles himself on the course is certainly valid, I don’t support spitting on putting greens, nor do I support kicking or throwing of clubs. These are definitely issues that he needs to work on.

      I do however take umbrage with your characterization of Americans as overall supporters of “stupid”, “boorish” and “unsporting” behavior. The fact that you would not miss his presence is irrelevant, the PGA Tour NEEDS Tiger and so does the WORLD of golf.

      Love it or leave it, Tiger drives the industry of golf, he pumps TV ratings, he fills tee times and he generates incredible amounts of interest outside the core fan base, GLOBALLY. Your country, my country, every civilized country on earth.

      YOU may not care about these things, you already play. However, in order for golf to grow and in order to get more kids playing, we need to build popularity in the game. Tiger is our best bet, right now.

      Jack, Arnie, Tom Watson and their ilk, are fantastic, but, my 9 year old stepson doesn’t know or care who they are, he wants to see Tiger play and win. When the day comes, I can assure you I will make him nauseatingly aware of golf history, it doesn’t appeal to him now.

      If you want to create a bunch of categories that we put players in and rank them based on manners, courtesy, sportsmanship and all of those other areas, great, we can have that conversation. This particular article was about arguing the idea that Majors is the only baseline for judging best ever.

      Tiger no longer existing would cause harm to the game that you and I love.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful remarks, by the way…there must have been a promotion around here, I was unaware we had “pundits” and “experts” (even in quotes) here at golf-newz, we just want to blab about golf :)

      • George McIntyre says:

        Thank you for your comments, whilst I am aware that my opinion of Tiger is not, (to say the least), widely shared, I simply believe that to be hailed as “The Greatest Ever”, all aspects of the player, both on and off the course must be taken into account.
        I have already acknowledged Tiger’s wonderful ability as a golfer, but perhaps I am of a generation which loves the sporting and, to use an old fashioned term which today may be met with some derision, gentlemanly approach to the great game, in my eyes there are no such “categories” as manners, courtesy sportsmanship etc., but these attributes are an essential ingredient of any person we wish to acclaim as the greatest ever, your contrary view simply reinforces my opinion that finally such things are being eliminated from the last real bastion of fair play.
        I have seen Tiger stand grinning whilst a group of fans moved a rock which must have weighed over a ton to give him relief from a “moveable obstruction” in the desert. I feel that in similar circumstances Niclaus, Watson, Faldo etc. would have either prevented this ludicrous action or played a sideways chip despite the obstacle having been cleared. Then again, was the action simply ludicrous, or did these people have money riding on Tiger?
        By the way the world of golf did not stop turning whilst the great man wasn’t playing, did we not see some great competitions won by some excellent golfers, or do these players not matter?
        Regarding your taking umbrage of my branding of American fans, I certainly do not classify all Americans as such, but I make no apologies or retractions. European Ryder Cup player’s ball mysteriously disappearing in the semi rough, “Job done!” remark between two “fans” as he has to give it up as lost, after being directed into the woods by these gentlemen.
        As I stated, I do not blame Woods for this kind of activity, remember the “late bounce” back onto the green at Kiawah Island? But it seems to be linked with the Woods era and the mindless chanting and stupid calls, “be the right club!” whilst putting for God’s sake! and I am aware that it is spreading – tit-for-tat into the rest of the world. Is this a good thing?
        OK rant over! (sorry don’t know how to post a smiley on here!)

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