Although we are of the opinion that it is nigh on impossible to compare great sportsmen from different eras, we thought we’d give our two cents on a classic clubhouse debate that, after a few pints are sunk in the 19th hole, can get quite heated between golfers on either side of the argument.
Who is the greatest golfer of them all?
Well…we all know it’s a two horse race but is it Jack Nicklaus or is it Tiger Woods?
We have two guys in the office, one who’s backing The Golden Bear and the other who thinks Tiger has already done enough to settle the debate. Let’s get ready to rumble!
Trent – Jack Nicklaus
Golf is a sport which, like tennis, considers its four major tournaments as the yardstick of achievement. Roger Federer has won more tennis grand slams than any other player: 17 in total, three more than his nearest rival. While an army of Rafael Nadal supporters will argue the Spaniard, with 13 grand slams, is a better player than Federer, the fact is he will not be considered the greatest tennis player of all time until he passes Federer’s tally of 17.
This argument therefore should be a simple one; the man with the most major championships is the greatest golfer in history. But some – my dear colleague Rory included – choose to believe it’s Tiger, with four less majors, who will go down as the best our game has ever seen.
There are arguments to be made in Woods’ defence, certain mitigating factors which i’ll entertain for a moment for the sake of debate.
Certainly the depth of fields and reach of talent is greater today than in Jack’s era. Yet for the huge pool of talented golfers emerging from all parts of the globe, very few have stepped up consistently at the majors.
The two active players with more than three major titles – Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els – are rarely direct rivals for Woods. Nicklaus, on the other hand, had to contend with Gary Player (nine majors), Tom Watson (eight), Arnold Palmer (seven), Lee Trevino (six) and Seve Ballesteros (five).
While Nicklaus finished second more than 10 times to players on that list, Woods’ runner-up finishes have been to one-hit wonders like Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Rich Beem, Y.E. Yang and Michael Campbell.
So when Jack wasn’t winning, it took someone pretty special to beat him. All in all, he finished second in 19 majors; Tiger has six runner-up results.
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If you weren’t old enough to see the best of Jack, here’s 10 essentials for knowing the man Trent thinks is the greatest of all time.
Jack had 48 top-three finishes at majors, twice as many as Tiger.
Some will point to player of the year awards and money titles as a measure of greatness – but as we found with Monty’s bizarre assertion last year, it’s the majors that truly matter.
Rory points to Tiger’s record nine Vardon Trophies for the lowest scoring average as another tick towards his apparent superiority over Jack. In actual fact, Nicklaus rarely played the then-required 80 rounds to qualify for the award. If the modern standard of 60 rounds (equal to playing the PGA Tour minimum of 15 events to remain a member), then Jack would have won eight Vardon trophies himself.
And as for the argument over Tiger’s standing as the World No.1 for an unprecedented 667 weeks … well, the rankings system was only introduced in 1986 – when Jack was well past his prime – so that comparison is about as useless a third nipple.
So sure, all of this could change over the next 10 years. Tiger needs to win five more majors to surpass Jack’s tally.
And it’s in this later stage of Tiger’s career where we might discover exactly how good Jack was. For at 38, the Golden Bear was able to rattle off three more Slams, including that fabled back nine in 1986 to win the Masters at the age of 46.
Could there be a greater measure of consistency, longevity, and ultimately… greatness?
Can you see Tiger winning a green jacket at a similar age?
At this very moment in time, while Woods has shown the talent and the game to be the best… Jack’s record means he simply is.
Trent’s opening argument reads “this should be a simple one; the man with the most major championships is the greatest golfer in history.”
Going on that logic, Monty, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood; all bona fide Ryder Cup stars with over 100 professional wins between them, not to mention Monty’s 8 European Tour Order of Merit titles, have all been bested by the likes of Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem and Ben Curtis. I think not…
Majors, while undoubtedly the biggest prizes in golf, are not the be-all and end-all.
Even if majors were the only measure of greatness, the nature of some of Tiger’s major championship wins stands out to me. He won the 1997 Masters by 12, the US Open in 2000 by 15 – a record that I doubt I will live to see threatened let alone broken – and the Open Championship by 8. He also has the “Tiger Slam” to his name. Many will argue that that didn’t count as a grand slam but no matter how you look at it, four on the trot is a remarkable achievement. He also holds the scoring (record in relation to par) at every major bar the US Open.
And what happens if Tiger catches Jack and they end up tied on 18? Each of their other considerable achievements simply have to be taken into account…and that’s where Tiger opens up his lead, leaving the bear in his dust.
Tiger has already passed Jack on the all time PGA Tour wins list with 79 wins in his 16 and a half years on tour. The only guy ahead of him is Sam Snead who amassed 82 over 30 years.
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Just in case you needed reminding how good Tiger is, here’s 10 of his greatest shots on the PGA Tour.
And it’s not as if Tiger is just lapping the field at run of the mill tour events. Everyone know he has a limited schedule, targeting only the biggest and best tournaments, against the strongest fields. 18 of Tiger’s wins have come at World Golf Championships as well. Alright so these weren’t around in Jack’s day but they still count as 18 wins against the strongest possible fields in world golf.
He has also produced streaks of golf unheard of in the modern day game. 6 consecutive strokeplay wins from 1999-2000 were backed up by 7 from 2006-2007.
And then there are the records…
PGA Player of the Year Award – 11 wins – A record.
PGA Tour Player of the Year Award – 11 wins – A record.
The Vardon Trophy (lowest scoring average) – 9 of these – A record.
Money List Titles – 10 – A record.
I could go on…
And despite the fact that I have been told by many of the old guard at my local golf club that Jack faced stiffer competition in his day, I would argue that the opposite is in fact true. Granted Nicklaus went up against some all time greats; players each with multiple major championships to their names. But Arnold Palmer was coming to the end of his prime when Nicklaus burst onto the scene – The King only won one major following Nicklaus’ 1st at the 1962 US Open – and at the other end of the timescale, Jack had already done the vast bulk of his work in the majors by the time Seve came along.
These days, there are fewer players who can be considered as true greats, I admit that. But I believe that’s down to the fact that there are so many more really, really good players. The majors are being shared around, rather than won by a select few. Essentially there are more players on tour these days capable of winning major championships, and equally I guess regular tour events, where Tiger is still dominating.
People also rattle on about how many 2nd place finishes (19) Jack had at majors. Tiger has repeatedly said those who finish 2nd are just the 1st loser. I would also guess that if the shoe was on the other foot and Tiger had finished 2nd so many times, Tiger’s detractors would be out in force, criticising him for not finishing off the job when he had the chance.
Then there’s Tiger’s World Golf Ranking record…as I’m writing this it stands at 667 weeks and counting. Tiger might be slowing down and past his prime…but there’s still plenty in the tank. Maybe even the 5 majors required to put this argument to bed for good.
Who do you think is the greatest golfer of all time? Have your say by voting in the poll and posting your reasoning in the comment section below.