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The Streak is Over, but the Beat(ing) Goes On

Mar. 27, 2008     By     Comments (31)

Time to drag out the "greatest ever" debate again. If there is even any debate anymore.

Thrash TalkAs I reckon most of you already know, The Streak (the latest one, anyway) is officially over. Someone beat Tiger Woods, finally, by two whole strokes, at last week's CA Championship at Doral, ending his run of official PGA Tour victories at five. Past Tiger streaks have ignited fiery discussions over Sir Eldrick's historical standing in golf, so to extend the Tiger theme of last week's Thrash Talk, I'd like to give you a few additional things to chew on. Read on to get my take on the matter.

While there is no lack of hero worship for Tiger Woods and his accomplishments in golf, you get a rather mixed response when you ask if he's the greatest ever. Perhaps the stickiest point in the debate is the issue of competition. How can we judge Tiger's record against that of Hogan, Jones, and Nicklaus, when they played against different competition? In fact, it is in this area where many end up concluding that Tiger is not greater than Jack, because, they argue, the Bear faced tougher competition in Palmer, Player, Trevino, and Watson, than Tiger does in Phil, Vijay, and Ernie.

Do you believe that? I don't. Try to hold your opinion for a minute while we look at some numbers.

Palmer, Player, Trevino, and Watson, combined, have 30 major championship victories, while Phil, Vijay, and Ernie have only nine. This is a huge difference, which on the surface appears to support the Jack-is-better camp. But those are career records, and to be fair, you have to adjust for that, somehow. So, as a way of normalizing things across the decades, I looked at the years 1962-72, Jack's first eleven full seasons, and 1997-2007, Tiger's first eleven.

During those years, Jack won 11 majors, Tiger 13. After Jack, there were six golfers who won multiple majors, including Player (4), Palmer (3), Trevino (3), Boros (2), Charles (2), and Jacklin (2). In the Tiger years, there were five other multiple winners, including Singh (3), Mickelson (3), Goosen (2), Els (2), and O'Meara (2). Pretty close here, wouldn't you say? Jack had one more multiple winner with whom to contend. In all, the 33 non-Nicklaus majors were won by 23 players (1.4 majors per player, if you're keeping score), while the 31 non-Tiger majors were also won by 23 players, 1.3 per player. A tenth of a major per player doesn't seem to me to be much difference.

So by this first, admittedly simple analysis, there really is no overwhelming evidence that would lead you to conclude that Jack faced much better competition than Tiger.

Counting wins is fine, but it only tells you so much. It's not all or nothing; finishing second is certainly better than fifty-second, and maybe if you looked at top-10 results, or money earnings, or scoring averages, or something, you would find that there were, indeed, more stellar performers in Jack's era. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this were the case.

I didn't actually crunch numbers for those stats (I have a day job that needs attention every now and then), but I am willing to concede the point. I'm willing to concede it because, contrary to what some have said, I think that the presence of more standouts in Jack's era actually suggests that it's Tiger facing tougher competition, not Jack.

Consider the differences between little league baseball and the major leagues. In little league, the best player in the league is probably not only the best pitcher, but the best power hitter, the best average hitter, the fastest runner, and the best fielder. He and the other good players in the league dominate the league to a far greater degree than even the best major league baseball player does. In a given major league season, it is rare to have a player really dominate a statistical category. Maybe you have a 54 homer guy, but there are also six others within 10% of that total. And none of these six is likely to be the leader in batting average.

With each level of baseball between little league and the majors, the scope of domination becomes a bit smaller. Why? Because the spread of talent becomes progressively smaller as you ascend in the ranks. Little leagues are full of a handful of genuinely good athletes, lots of average kids, and a few kids who miss the water when they fall out of the canoe. At the major league level, you are looking at the very cream of the crop, where the players are bunched much closer together in talent than at lower levels.

So, if we take this idea and turn it inside out, what can be said about Tiger's competition v. Jack's? Well, we certainly remember more star, hall-of-fame caliber players from Jack's era; the most logical explanation for this, to me, is not that there were more highly talented players in Jack's day, but that there are fewer marginal players on tour today. This means more players capable of winning tournaments and even majors, preventing guys like Mickelson and Singh from racking up the career wins and overall success rate of guys like Palmer and Player. It's harder to separate oneself from the field. For the mortals, anyway.

Or, using the baseball analogy, more tour players in Jack's day were probably equivalent to "triple-A" level, leaving win opportunities to a smaller pool of players.

Finally, if you don't want to believe the opinions of a hacker such as me, if you are more swayed by the words of your hero, all I can say is that there's still every reason to believe Tiger is playing a tougher room than Jack ever did. It used to be a common interview question: "Who will be the next Nicklaus?" When they asked Jack, he used to offer, diplomatically, that it was very difficult for a player to dominate as he did in the past, because the overall talent level was higher, and equipment made up for differences in skill. Jack made statements like this repeatedly in the 80s and in his 1990s autobiography, and certainly the scales have swung even more dramatically since then with respect to the technical advantages of equipment.

It has only been in the last few years, as they drift farther and farther into the geriatric realm that we have heard old champions criticize Tiger's competition as being spoiled, or gutless, or otherwise inferior.

Before he died, Byron Nelson was quoted as saying "I think [Tiger's] competition is excellent." Dow Finsterwald, another older player with no legacy to protect, who saw both Arnold and Jack in their prime, was interviewed during last year's Memorial Tournament, and went out of his way to say that, for all the talk of great equipment today, players are just better than ever.

If you really could, through some sort of Star Trek time transporter thingie, bring Hogan, Jones, Snead, Arnie, Jack, et al, back to life, in their golfing primes, and put them on the course with Tiger, I honestly don't think it would be close.

A human being with as much talent, drive, self-discipline, confidence, and energy as Tiger Woods probably comes along once in a century, if that. Consider yourselves very lucky to be watching it.

Discussion

  1. D_Nice says:

    Legends grow over time.

    I'm sure Hogan and guys from that era thought that Palmer, Player, Trevino, and Watson weren't much either compared to their likes.

  2. Jeff says:

    Well said. Excellent treatment of the issues. I agree. Your little league versus major league analogy hits the nail on the head.

    BTW, I don't think your opinion takes anything away from guys like Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, or even Bobby Jones. We don't do the past any service by minimizing contemporary accomplishments.

  3. Steve says:

    In my opinion, the label as "best ever" is a little invalid in sports. The problem I have with the statement is that much of this is based off of the numbers game, wins, etc... So much is different now in sports such as equipment technology, sports medicine, etc. So, to compare two sports figures from different eras is impossible.

    That being said, Tiger is the most dominant athlete for his era in all of sports. Lets face it, golf is a much bigger deal now than it was 30 years ago. Overall, the tour is more solid from top to bottom because of it. So, in my opinion Tiger's competition is definitely superior to watch him dominate them is truly amazing.

  4. Tony says:

    I don't bow before Tiger, though I love to watch him play and even cheer him on. I agree we are lucky to be witness to his on-course performances. They are stunning at times. He is, without a doubt, the greatest golfer of his era, as Jack was in his and Nelson in his and so forth. It's just difficult, if not impossible to compare eras in any sport.

  5. Nice article JP. To me, it's all about major championships when talking about the best ever. It will always be impossibe to compare the competition fairly. When Tiger passes Jack on the all-time majors list, I'll give him his due credit of being the best ever. Until then, The Golden Bear is still number one on my list.

    I wouldn't worry about Tiger too much though. He probably won't stop at 18 majors. I'm sure he will finish with 20+ majors and 100 or so regular event wins. That's crazy to think about!

  6. 9989randy says:

    You said it well. I agree with most of what you said. That being said golf is an individual soitary game. Ultimatly you're playing against yourself and the course (with the exception of match play). It isn't a boxing match. Tiger vs Jack...one was a great player the other is a phenom. Tiger gets better as the pressure increases. Very few players in history have been capable of that. Almost everybody chokes at some level. Tiger is extremely talented, fearless, and if that isn't enough, he's lucky..that's a tough combination to beat.

  7. Sports Fan says:

    Column is correct and astute.

    People ask, "Where are the .400 hitters today? The old-time guys were better!"

    The answer is, "Where are the .195 hitters today?"

    Things have compressed around the mean due to ever-increasing levels of the overall talent pool. Mark Belanger played more than a decade in the majors batting around 0.200. No player today would even survive one season doing that, no matter how brilliant they were in the field. Sure, Ted Williams faced some great pitchers. But he also faced slugs 4-5 days a week, guys who wouldn't get a Div. I scholarship today.

    The reason that you find a concentration of majors wins in the past is because the talent pool was very, very shallow. The best players of yesteryear are as good as the best players of today, but the next 10-20 guys of today are far, far better than the next 10-20 of yesteryear. There is ever-greater compression toward the top end of the scale. This makes Tigerr's achievements even more remarkable. He is, by far, the greatest player the game has ever seen.

  8. Ruari says:

    I've read this article twice now and I still find the logic so contorted I'm going to have to visit a chiropractor.

    The fact there are fewer winners other than Tiger now means the routed players are comparatively better???

    eh???

    You know where I stand already - essentially, case yet to be proved but do not dismiss Jack, especially if you never saw him.

    But keep 'em coming!

  9. So, to compare two sports figures from different eras is impossible.

    I don't think so. A win is still a win, and still the ultimate goal.

    The fact there are fewer winners other than Tiger now means the routed players are comparatively better???

    The fields are deeper now. Back in Jack's day, the guy ranked 50th likely didn't have much of a chance to win the major or a tournament. Today, everyone in the field can win.

  10. JP Bouffard says:

    Yeah, Ruari, go back and read it again.

    If you had an entire tour made up of clones, but with different names, would anyone dominate? No, they'd all win the same over time.

    If you had Tom Pernice playing in club tournaments at my course, he'd dominate, winning everything. Because there is almost nobody able to play within 5 strokes of him. Would that make Tom Pernice an all time great?

    So, more "great players" in Jack's day is sort of a relative thing. More players stood out among the tour at that time, but if the tour was overall weaker, doesn't that qualify their "greatness" a little?

    The idea that you can't compare players across eras is patently false. Of course you can compare them, you can compare anything you want. You can argue that it's tough to prove anything in the comparison, yes, but that doesn't mean you can't try to figure something out.

  11. Jeff N says:

    Evidence for JP's thesis lurks in Tiger's own record broken down by the nature of the field. He is most dominant in WGCs, which have the smallest fields; less so in the majors; least so in regular Tour events. The larger and broader the field, the more likely someone random will get hot and win -- which underscores the depth of talent in those larger fields.

    I didn't say it was proof -- there are too many other factors, including the quality of course and its influence on Tiger's ability to demonstrate his talent and separate from the field -- but it is suggestive evidence.

  12. Ruari says:

    Just back from the chiropractor and I'm a bit better but I think I may need some Reiki or something...

    First, I will concede a point (sound of cheers echoes round the world...or the US, at least :wink: ).

    There will always be someone who pops out of the ranks and wins something - Fred Daly at the British Open in 1947; Max Faulkner (effectively an assistant pro to Henry Cotton) in 1951 was the last British player to win The Open before Jacklin, for example. Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem, etc more recently.

    It is true that there seem to be more 'stalwarts' winning today and I will concede that the standard from, say, 20-100, whether on WGR or individual tours, is higher. A number of reasons have been suggested for this. Equipment is one - the ball flies further, it's designed to be less susceptible to sidespin - slices and hooks. The clubs are more forgiving - even the blades the top pros use. They give today's player more consistency and the leisure golfer more pleasure. The condition of the courses is another - on the related Forum thread someone compares Tiger's distance putting with Jack's and finds Tiger better. Have a look at some old films, whether of the Majors or Shell's Wonderful World of golf, it matters not; you'll see the greens today are much smoother and consistent - courses of today are far, far better. The greater amount of loot available makes it practical for relatively average players to make a living - to practice and get better. But what gets my attention is something about physical fitness. Tiger has raised the bar in that area but we still see people whose bodies look like they've been shaped in jelly molds, rather than the gym. The fact that they can contend and, on occasion, win, doesn't tell me the standard at the top is generally stratospheric.

    The point I make and will continue to support is that, at the very highest level, Tiger isn't facing the close competition that Jack faced - that the top echelon payers are not, in relative terms, as good as those in the 60s, 70s 80s and perhaps into the early 90s. Watch the way they react when Tiger comes up the leaderboard - their shoulders slump, they demonstrate an air of resignation. They don't believe they can win. Compare and contrast with Player, Trevino, Watson, Ballesteros, etc. Not only did they believe they could win, they were affronted if they didn't and went away to make themselves better. The inability of competitors to capitalize on any Tiger stumbles makes it more likely that the journeyman, having a blinder of a day or a week, will break through - the top stars seem to accept defeat to a greater extent. I could quote several but Colin Montgomerie sums it up. "Tiger will win two Majors a season. That leaves only two for the rest of us." Which two? Do you stand around and wait until he's won 'his two' before working to win?

    But Hamilton, Curtis, etc, know when they're having their day in the sun and that it may not come again. So they go for it.

    The difference may, in the end, be about mental attitude - certainly, today's elite are fitter, they are able to devote more time to golf and therefore should be better; that's true of all sports, of course. If you took the players of yesteryear and bring them to today exactly as they were, with persimmon woods, unforgiving blades, wound balls, the old standards of diet, health and fitness - they'd be creamed. Give them today's equipment in their heyday and they'd set even higher standards.

    This year's Indy 500 winner will triumph at a far higher speed than A J Foyt in the 1960s. That doesn't mean they're better drivers; the equipment is vastly superior. Take today's footballers (of either code) back into the past and they'd overrun the opposition, with today's sports science behind them.

    One can only directly compare players of one era with those of that era. So we use various milestones and ongoing standards to attempt to compare across generations. In golf, it's the Majors, and Tiger is running away with it - in fact, I was surprised that he wasn't further ahead of Jack after his first dozen years. The Golden Bear was right to talk about the 'leveling effect' of the equipment making it harder to dominate - so we have to look for some other reason why Tiger is doing so. One is that he truly is a league above everyone else. If that's the case, he will always, always win - and he doesn't. He will especially always win in the WGCs and the Majors, with their elite fields - and he doesn't. He is mortal, same as the rest of us.

    But why aren't his contemporaries closer? The reason I see is as I said above - that the missing element is mental strength and self-belief. That doesn't translate to gutlessness, by the way. Anyone, weekend hacker or semi-pro, knows how hard it is to win, whether a monthly medal, Saturday Stableford, knockout matchplay. Woody Austin talked this weekend of choking - it was an honest assessment and he went up in my estimation because of it. But we all see good players out there - Goosen, Els, Mickelson, the list goes on - who simply don't seem to have the belief in themselves coming down the stretch.

    Their technique may be - and is - good but the old cliche talks of the most important six inches in golf being between your ears. Player, Trevino, Miller, Watson, Ballesteros all believed they were good enough to be the best, no matter who else was around. I think the upcoming generation has that self-belief and will give Tiger real opposition as he gets into the substance of his thirties. I don't see his contemporaries doing it and so, for me, the standard of his opposition, regardless of equipment, balls, fitness and course condition, isn't as high as Jack faced - they're beaten before they start.

    Must get back to work, now...

  13. JP says:

    Ruari:

    Very well reasoned argument, and you state the "counterpoint" to my argument about as well as it can be stated.

    We'll have to agree to disagree. As succinctly as I can put it, I don't think today's players lack mental strength and self-belief, or, more precisely, I don't think the prior generation of players were any better in these areas. I think Tiger is flat better, by a wide margin, plain and simple.

    To me, talking about "mental strength" is what Bill James calls a "bullsh*t dump." When you are trying to explain something (such as the difference between modern era and past players), and there is a difference you can't explain, you can conveniently attribute whatever you want to something unquantifiable, like "mental strength." Nobody can prove or disprove it, so you can literally dump the argument here and say that's that.

    I admit that we'll never come to any "scientific" quantifiable proof of the greatest golfer--who would care anyway--but I still prefer to try to think about it in objective terms, rather than purport some elusive, 'je ne sais quoi' factor as causal.

    Stated another way, let's take a 25 year old Gary Player, or Tom Watson, or Lee Trevino, and put them on the course against Tiger Woods, week in, week out, and see if they develop this vaunted mental strength and confidence we seem to believe they had in spades. I'm not sure we'd see it.

    Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson have each won over 30 tour events and 3 majors. The next generation of golf writers and apologists and golf blog posters will likely see them as being greater players than we give them credit for today.

    But I can't prove my belief (any more than you can prove yours), and so it goes...

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to make such a thought provoking reply.

  14. Dan says:

    Both Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus did have better competition. You forgot about Billy Casper during Jack's first 11 years. Casper is 7th all time with 51 victories, and 3 majors. He won 27 times between '64 and '70.

    Sam Snead was probably the best of all time. He has 82 PGA Tour wins, and his contemporaries were Hogan, 64 wins, T3 all time win list, Nelson, 52 wins, 6 on all time list, Cary Middlecoff, 40 wins, 9 on all time list, Lloyd Mangrum 36 wins, 12 all time, Jimmy Demaret 31 wins, T15 all time.

    Jack Nicklaus has 73 PGA Tour wins, his contemporaries, Palmer, 62 wins, 5th all time, Billy Casper, 51 wins, 7th all time, Watson, 39 wins, 10th all time, Trevino - 29 (6 majors), and Player - 24 wins.

    Tiger has 64 PGA Tour wins, his contemporaries, Phil, 33 wins, 13 all time, Vijay, 31 wins, T15 all time, DL III, 19 wins, 36 all time, Els, 16 wins.

    After it is all said and done, it is possible that NONE of Tigers contemporaries will finish in the top 10 all time for tour wins. AND, the other players did it in a time when the equipment didn't magnify the differences of the best players as much.

  15. Jack Nicklaus has 73 PGA Tour wins, his contemporaries, Palmer, 62 wins, 5th all time, Billy Casper, 51 wins, 7th all time, Watson, 39 wins, 10th all time, Trevino - 29 (6 majors), and Player - 24 wins.

    Dan, methinks you did not read JP's article. Only a fraction of those wins came while Nicklaus was winning majors. Stretching your logic a bit further, we may as well include Tiger as one of Nicklaus' peers, since they've played PGA Tour events (and even majors) together.

  16. JP says:

    After it is all said and done, it is possible that NONE of Tigers contemporaries will finish in the top 10 all time for tour wins. AND, the other players did it in a time when the equipment didn't magnify the differences of the best players as much.

    Maybe you mis-typed there, but most people, including Jack, think that the older, inferior equipment mangified the differences between the best players and the lousy ones. More forgiving equipment means that players who miss the sweet spot more (inferior players) don't get punished as much or at all for their error.

    By this logic, it was easier to dominate in Jack's era than today, which is what Jack himself has said.

    Thanks for reading.

  17. JP says:

    Also, Dan, your argument is 'begging the question' of my article. What I'm saying is that the whole reason guys like Palmer and Casper were able to rack up so many wins is that there was, overall on tour, weaker, shallower competition. Of 80 guys qualifying for a tournament in 1965, maybe 20 had a realistic chance to win. Today, of 80 guys qualifying, maybe 75 have a chance. There's fewer "easy" wins to go around, and the wins get spread around more.

    As competition increases, domination decreases. Yes, Tiger is dominant, but he's the only one. My best explanation is that he is very, very, very exceptional, and that the rest of the players are very good, but bunched so closely together in talent that their records aren't as impressive as some of previous generations.

    Again, thanks for reading.

  18. Jeff N says:

    So let's just put aside the statistical argument for a moment, and let's look at Tiger Woods the golfer. Where is his weakness? What part of his game needs improvement?

    Lee Trevino -- for all of his mental strength -- said that "God doesn't give everything to anybody," that everybody has some area of weakness in his golf game. For Jack, it was greenside pitching and chipping; he was not superlative at that part of the game, and this may have gone into the calculations that led to his brilliantly conservative gameplans. He won most of his majors by letting others make mistakes; this is how one finishes second 19 times in addition to all his firsts.

    So where is Tiger's weakness? What didn't God give him? (Spoken extremely metaphorically, of course.) Long game? Check. Iron play? Check. Fairway bunkers? Check. Trouble shots? Check. Wedges? Check. Short game around the greens? Check and double-check. Putting? Oh my. His greatest weakness is probably accuracy with the driver, but he more than compensates for it by not having to hit driver much of the time in order to win -- something he shares with Nicklaus, of course. Who hit more 1-irons off the tee than Jack?

    We'll never prove the point one way or another. But I'm pretty well convinced that Tiger is the best there's ever been, maybe the best there can be.

  19. JP says:

    Jeff N: Amen, brother. Tiger's weakness is swearing, I think.

  20. Mark says:

    Of 80 guys qualifying for a tournament in 1965, maybe 20 had a realistic chance to win. Today, of 80 guys qualifying, maybe 75 have a chance. There's fewer "easy" wins to go around, and the wins get spread around more.

    Could you tell us how you came up with these numbers of 20 and 75?

  21. Ruari says:

    As competition increases, domination decreases. Yes, Tiger is dominant, but he's the only one.

    And

    If you had Tom Pernice playing in club tournaments at my course, he'd dominate, winning everything. Because there is almost nobody able to play within 5 strokes of him.

    Hi, JP

    This is where I have trouble with the logic. To summarize and paraphrase, Pernice would dominate because the competition is weak; Tiger dominates because the competition is strong.

    I can easily accept the former, Pernice example; I have some arguments with the reality of the latter (as we know!) but I I venture that the two positions cannot be true at the same time - they're mutually contradictory.

    I have to take issue with your 'bullsh*t dump' comment. (I can't take too much issue as you may not have liked my chiropractor joke - are we even on that? In a rumbustious debate one has to take the rough with the smooth!)

    Mental attitude/mental strength is an established element of the game. After all, the first challenger one has to overcome when playing golf is oneself - and most people never manage it. So psychology is not any kind of bullsh*t.

    Consider two recent examples. Look at Ernie losing his grasp of reality in Dubai earlier this year. Yes, he needed a birdie to tie and eagle to win but his ball was off line, in the rough and a long way from the green. What on Earth possessed him to try to get it on the green from where he was?
    At the Accenture World Matchplay, Tiger was very, very fortunate to get through the first round - his putting was atrocious. The closer he got to the finish line - and the further he got ahead - the more nervous JB Holmes got, as evidenced by his almost endless series of practice strokes, and the way he conducted them - more twitch than stroke, I'd venture.
    In both cases - and these are just the most recent - Tiger's achievement was made immeasurably easier by the opposition yielding. Ernie misplaced his golfing brain; Holmes looked as if he was overcome by the 'enormity' of what he was on the brink of achieving. Either guy could, or should, have won but they didn't. Is it bullsh*t to propose that the problem was inside their head, rather than in their golf? By your own argument, they are better than multiple-major champions in the past. So why else did they lose?
    Further back, you have Sabbatini (for all his huff and puff) and VJ in the Wachovia, Sabbatini in the Bridgestone, etc, etc and on and on - you see the players fail to get the job done. As I said before, their body language - and the language they use when talking about stuff - indicates that they expect Tiger to win and don't have the ultimate mental edge to sustain their game to the bitter end.
    Don't get me wrong - I can see that Tiger is brilliant and he's clearly the best of his generation. My argument is whether the opposition is your local club taking on Tom Pernice or it's actually as of high quality as Jack faced.

  22. Ruari says:

    Dan, methinks you did not read JP's article. Only a fraction of those wins came while Nicklaus was winning majors. Stretching your logic a bit further, we may as well include Tiger as one of Nicklaus' peers, since they've played PGA Tour events (and even majors) together.

    Erik, I think you have to check your sources. Casper won two of his three Majors in 1966 and 1970; he also won 27 PGA Tour titles 1964-70, two more than Jack in the same period, as it happens. Palmer won his last Major in 1964 and he didn't turn 40 till 1970 - hardly over the hill. Watson won all his Majors before Jack won his last, in 1986. Player won most of his Majors in the 1960s and 70s. Trevino is just a few months older than Jack. All of them are genuine contemporaries. It could be a bit of a stretch to include, say, Ballesteros - but not much; his last Major victory (British Open, 1988) came just two years after Jack's last triumph.

  23. JP says:

    Could you tell us how you came up with these numbers of 20 and 75?

    Just a guess, Mark. The only other person I read making this sort of a statement was Jack Nicklaus. I'll check his biography next time I get a chance to see if I can find this particular quote there. Not sure what, if any, numbers he gave, but my sense was he thought the number of potential winners was much, much higher today than when he started out.

  24. JP says:

    This is where I have trouble with the logic. To summarize and paraphrase, Pernice would dominate because the competition is weak; Tiger dominates because the competition is strong.

    No, I'm not saying Tiger is dominating because the competition is strong. I'm saying he's dominating in spite of the fact that the competition is strong. This makes the case for him being the greatest ever.

    The fact that no _other_ players are racking up incredibly impressive resumes today (no Players or Watsons, as in Jack's day) is what makes the case for overall more deep, even, higher level competition today.

    That Tiger is able to rise above this level is what makes him the greatest ever.

    Do you see what I'm saying Ruari? You don't have to agree, but do you follow the argument?

  25. Ruari says:

    Do you see what I'm saying Ruari? You don't have to agree, but do you follow the argument?

    Yes, I understand what you're saying but no, I don't agree.

    But you already knew that! :wink:

  26. JP says:

    I have to take issue with your 'bullsh*t dump' comment. Mental attitude/mental strength is an established element of the game. After all, the first challenger one has to overcome when playing golf is oneself - and most people never manage it. So psychology is not any kind of bullsh*t.

    Consider two recent examples. Look at Ernie losing his grasp of reality in Dubai earlier this year. Yes, he needed a birdie to tie and eagle to win but his ball was off line, in the rough and a long way from the green. What on Earth possessed him to try to get it on the green from where he was?
    At the Accenture World Matchplay, Tiger was very, very fortunate to get through the first round - his putting was atrocious. The closer he got to the finish line - and the further he got ahead - the more nervous JB Holmes got, as evidenced by his almost endless series of practice strokes, and the way he conducted them - more twitch than stroke, I'd venture.
    In both cases - and these are just the most recent - Tiger's achievement was made immeasurably easier by the opposition yielding. Ernie misplaced his golfing brain; Holmes looked as if he was overcome by the 'enormity' of what he was on the brink of achieving. Either guy could, or should, have won but they didn't. Is it bullsh*t to propose that the problem was inside their head, rather than in their golf? By your own argument, they are better than multiple-major champions in the past. So why else did they lose?
    Further back, you have Sabbatini (for all his huff and puff) and VJ in the Wachovia, Sabbatini in the Bridgestone, etc, etc and on and on - you see the players fail to get the job done. As I said before, their body language - and the language they use when talking about stuff - indicates that they expect Tiger to win and don't have the ultimate mental edge to sustain their game to the bitter end.
    Don't get me wrong - I can see that Tiger is brilliant and he's clearly the best of his generation. My argument is whether the opposition is your local club taking on Tom Pernice or it's actually as of high quality as Jack faced.

    Tiger Woods has tried ridiculously difficult shots many times in big tournaments (Canadian Open bunker shot, for example), Arnold did this repeatedly in his career. Els taking a risky shot trying to win is not de facto (hope my Latin's ok there) evidence of poor thinking. As you said, he needed a birdie to tie. Maybe the percentage play for making 3 was to try for the green. Only he knows what the lie was. Judging the matter after seeing the result skews the thinking.

    And did these vaunted, mentally tough past champions never choke? How about Arnold at Olympic? Hogan at Cherry Hills? Nicklaus at Cherry Hills, for that matter, failing to fix a ball mark, and too taken with the situation to ask if he could do it, leading to a missed crucial putt?

    I am not saying this sort of debate is a bullsh*t dump because sports psychology and the mental game is bullsh*t. It isn't. What I think is bullsh*t is to ignore quantifiable, factual data which may disagree with one's opinion, and use something completely unquantifiable and subjective, such as mental strength, to discount facts.

    My article wasn't an exhaustive thesis, but it DID demonstrate that for all of the huffing and puffing about the great greying golf geniuses of yesteryear, they didn't really do any better in Jack's first 11 years than did Tiger's 'weak' competition in his first 11. Furthermore, it's a known statistical phenomenon that as abilitiy levels become more and more equal in a population and you have regression toward the mean, the number of exceptional, outstanding performers is going to decrease. For me, I'd rather deal with stuff like this than suggest that, for some unknown reason, a handful of golf pros in 1967 were blessed with more mental fortitude than a similar group in 1997.

    The mental game and decision making are definitely important, but they are not more important than the physical skill of making the shots. The reason Tiger wins is about 95% due to the fact that he just makes better golf shots than the rest of the guys, not because he's thinking more clearly.

    There is an adage in sports journalism that once you've written, interviewed, and reported for about 5 years, you've heard and seen everything you'll ever hear and see. The quotes, the cliches, the exciting finishes, the blowouts, tend to repeat themselves over time.

    A friend says sports only means something because it is a metaphor for life, and I suppose we like to get into the heads of our pro athletes because it somehow speaks to our own mental state, our own hopes, insecurities, etc. Fine and dandy, but however compelling this sort of stuff may be, I prefer to deal with things I can grasp a bit more tangibly.

    Again, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  27. JP says:

    Erik, I think you have to check your sources. Casper won two of his three Majors in 1966 and 1970; he also won 27 PGA Tour titles 1964-70, two more than Jack in the same period, as it happens. Palmer won his last Major in 1964 and he didn't turn 40 till 1970 - hardly over the hill. Watson won all his Majors before Jack won his last, in 1986. Player won most of his Majors in the 1960s and 70s. Trevino is just a few months older than Jack. All of them are genuine contemporaries. It could be a bit of a stretch to include, say, Ballesteros - but not much; his last Major victory (British Open, 1988) came just two years after Jack's last triumph.

    Ruari: Yes, I missed Casper's 2 majors in Jack's first 11 years.
    Some of this is splitting hairs, but Jack's period of dominance, which I consider 1962-1975 coincides best with that of Player and Casper; Watson came later and Palmer earlier. Tiger's dominance coincides with the prime of Mickelson, Els, and Singh. Comparing the records of Mickelson, Singh, and Els with Tiger during their time of overlap gives fairly similar results to that of Jack, Trevino, Player, and Casper during say 1962-75.

  28. Ruari says:

    Jack's period of dominance, which I consider 1962-1975 ....

    Mayhap splitting hairs but I'd go to 1980 - he won two Majors that year, after all, and three of the 20 played during the period: a lot of people would regard 15% victory ratio and 13/20 top 10s as pretty significant.

    One of the things noticeable about Jack's career is that people came after him in pairs or bunches - Player and Palmer, Player and Trevino, Watson and Ballesteros - not to mention the 'nearly there' guys like Weiskopf, Miller (who was the best in the world for a year or so), etc. And the way the inventory turned over; by the time Jack had been pro for 11 years, he'd been facing Player, Palmer, Casper, Saunders, Trevino, Tony Lema (rip - great to watch, died too soon), all in their pomp. In the 75-80 phase, he had to raise himself to new heights to meet the challenge of Watson and Ballesteros and the ongoing interference(!) of Trevino, as well as Player in his last great flush. He did it, wining not just once - as Player did - but adding another three. He was also involved in the 'duel in the sun', one of the greatest matches anyone has ever seen. He lost - but he came back and won the Open the following year.

    All great stuff - I'm privileged to have been able to see a lot of it.

    Jack also changed - during the late 60s and seventies - and won hearts and admiration all over the world. He connected better with the spectators, was less aloof and stand-offish. Mind you, the reaction he received after he beat Arnie to his first US Open would probably have made anyone a bit reserved!

    He was and remains a great ambassador for the sport and did a great deal to promote it around the world. Tiger is a world icon, no doubt, but Jack travelled the world far more. He won the Australian Open 6 times -I don't believe Tiger has ever even played in it. He made a point of playing in the World Matchplay at Wentworth (OK - he was part of McCormack's stable when it was the 'IMG invitational' - but he went). He played in the World Cup/Canada Cup every time the opportunity arose, wherever it was - from France (won in 1963) to Japan (won 1966) and everywhere else. He and Arnold Palmer took up the task of ensuring US golf didn't become totally insular and the game remained a world sport. Its world status is being enhanced but more by the marketing men than Tiger himself - which is a shame. I don't think the WGC would have become US-only for the convenience of the American players when Jack, Arnie and Player dominated. What a shame it is now.

    All round, I think Jack gave a great deal more to the game than Tiger has - so far. But he's only 32 - there is time. Let us hope he uses it. If his career came to an end tomorrow, then in 22 years' time (it's 22 years since the 1986 Masters) I'm sure he would be remembered as a remarkable player but would he be held in such high regard as Jack?

    I dunno. Time will tell.

  29. Reid says:

    Every 20 years or so someone comes along who becomes the best ever. Jones was. Then along came Walter Hagen. Then Ben Hogan eclipsed him. Then Nicklaus eclipsed Hogan. Then Woods eclipsed Nicklaus (in my opinion). Someone will eclipse Woods as the best ever in the next 20 years. Not to believe so would be to ignore history.

  30. Rudy says:

    I really like your column, you bring up stuff that golfers talk about before, during and after their own rounds of golf. It's a great debate and I don't really know if it will be settled by statistics alone.

    On the merit of accomplishment alone, Tiger will win as all time best regardless of his competition. But the intangibles will also support "the all-time best" claim. Watching Tiger is very fun. The operative word here is "watch"! He is the most scrutinized golfer in history. During his win at Arnold Palmers tournament and the Doral tournament almost every swing he makes is documented. You get to see him single handedly take apart the competion of "his" era, the modern media era. NO other golfer has been trained, groomed, built or nurtured to handle this pressure. The "modern media era" and its pressures are fantastic and to perform under the spotlight of intense media and fan scrutiny is in itself a towering achievement.

    That being said, the combination of talent, age, energy and competitiveness put Tiger in a class by himself. There is no competition in this regard. I don't know how many times I have a watched a final round of any golf tournament in which Tiger is involved hoping one of the other fine golfers of his era step up and throw darts and make it exciting and fun to watch. That intangible is why there is even a debate. I think Michelson, Els, Vijay and the rest are wonderful golf talents, but they appear to always catch the same "wilting" virus when going head to head with Tiger, espcially in majors. If one of them threw a snake at Tiger a la Trevino at Nicklaus it would not relieve pressure we'd probably have a congressional investigation or the presidential candidates getting wound up about it.

    And that's it, where do they go when Tiger comes on? One time, just one time--one of the other hall of famers stands up and says "Not Today, it's MY Day!" and this debate is over. Tiger will still go down as the greatest but not because he didn't have the competition. That competition will make him the greatest. Taking nothing away from one timers, (Rich Beem, Angel, etc.) or near miss winners (Sergio, Bob May), it is the hall of famers who will diminish Tigers accomplishments by not givings us the Nicklaus vs. Palmer, Nicklaus vs. Player, Nicklaus vs. Trevino, Watson, Weiskopf, Norman in the crucible of "Major" competition. Golly that is a whole bunch of really fine golfers that Jack beat in Majors. Maybe I should re-think this.

    Nah, Tiger is still better.

    It's not fair to say he is not the greatest because he didn't have the competiion, but it is fair to say his competition's response was not great when they had the opportunity to stand and look eyeball to eyeball with the greatest golfer that ever lived and said: "I won that day against the best ever!"

  1. [... As I reckon most of you already know, The Streak (the latest one, anyway) is officially over. Someone beat Tiger Woods, finally, by two whole strokes, at last week's CA ...]

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