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Tiger vs. Jack

Jul. 21, 2014     By     Comments (23)

The age-old debate rages on.

Thrash TalkTrying to parse out the respective greatness of golf’s two winningest major champions is probably the sport’s biggest unsolved mystery.

Jack’s supporters, largely those who lived through his career, tend to look at the one big marker that Nicklaus certainly beats Woods in: major championship wins, as currently defined. 18 remains a larger number than 14, after all. They also point out the Hall of Fame-level competition that Jack had to face throughout his career, including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson.

And Tiger’s supporters, generally younger, look to most other stats. Tiger leads Jack in PGA Tour wins, worldwide wins, Vardon Trophies, money titles, and many more. There’s also a very pervasive argument that Tiger’s competition, despite not having the dozen big names of Jack’s day, was far deeper, and presented a more of a weekly challenge where 100 different players were skilled enough to win rather than 20.

It’s an argument that often gets emotional and irrational, but if we want a real answer, we’re going to have to break it down.

The Concept of Comparing Eras
Travel back in time with me for a minute. It’s 1987. Jack Nicklaus has 18 majors, and he's generally considered the best golfer of all time. No qualms there, but second place on the major list belongs to Walter Hagen at 11 majors.

I don’t care how cool of a character you consider Walter Hagen to be, or how much you like the bargain-basement golf shirts at Dick’s Sporting Goods that bear is name, but he’s not the second best golfer of all time here in 1987. He might not even be better than relative contemporaries Harry Vardon (seven majors) and Bobby Jones (seven majors, plus five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur), and I’d certainly take Hogan (nine majors), Byron Nelson (five majors), Sam Snead (seven majors), Gene Sarazan (seven) and Arnold Palmer (seven) over The Haig.

GOAT arguments (at least as they apply to the runners up) have to be nuanced here in the pre-Tiger world, because majors fail to tell the whole story.

Tiger Woods 2014 Quicken Loans National Thursday

How did I conclude that Hagen might not be much better than several of his rivals? Context. Hagen won a majority of his U.S. and British Opens before Bobby Jones had broken through, and because Jones was an amateur, Hagen played the PGA Championship (which was still in its infancy) with Gene Sarazen as his only real competition. It’s no wonder he won it five times.

In a world where the vast majority of touring golfers had to scrape by just to feed their families, Hagen lived lavishly. He was one of a few Americans who could afford to travel overseas regularly at a time when Europe didn’t have many dominant players, which was a large contributor to his four British titles. His celebrity allowed him to represent high-status clubs without an obligation to be there 24/7 when he wasn’t competing, which freed him up to practice (or play in lucrative exhibition matches).

To be fair, of course, Hagen didn’t get to play The Masters until five years after his last major win, and his many wins in other highly prestigious events (which I'll mention in the next section) get lost in the shuffle.

But that’s what the thought process had to look like in 1987. Subtle, logical, a bit argumentative. Have I proved conclusively that all of those players were certainly better than Hagen? Of course not, but if you think it’s as conclusive as 11>X, well, maybe I just can’t help you.

And that’s what the process should look like in 2014. If Hagen’s 11 majors aren’t conclusively more impressive than Hogan’s nine or Nelson’s five, Nicklaus’ 18 doesn’t have to be reflexively more impressive than Woods’ 14.

20 or 18?
As I alluded to in the prior section, the history surrounding the concept of “major championships” is somewhat messy. Bobby Jones is almost universally regarded as having won a “Grand Slam” in 1930, when he won the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open, and British Amateur. We all generally accept that, but we also don’t count Jones’ amateur event wins towards his modern major total. Should some hotshot win those four tournaments next year, we’d have to put some actual thought into how we categorize major championships. Furthermore, we do count Hagen’s wins at the PGA Championship at a time when it clearly wasn’t very important of a tournament.

For years, both the Western Open and the North and South Open were highly prestigious, to the point where they might have been considered majors had the term existed in earnest. We don’t count Snead’s combined five wins at those events towards his total, nor would I argue that we should, but it speaks somewhat towards the arbitrary nature of the term “major championships.”

That’s all to say this: Jack Nicklaus was widely considered to be a 20-time major champion until the mid-1990s. When Jack Nicklaus became the golfer with the most major championship wins, it was Bobby Jones’ record of 13 majors (including the amateur events) that he was passing, not Hagen’s 11.

The event in the mid-90s that prompted Jack’s U.S. Am titles to fall out of vogue? Tiger won three, back-to-back-to-back, something not even the great Jack Nicklaus ever did, to say nothing of Bobby Jones.

Tiger Woods 2014 Quicken Loans National Friday

I’m not saying Tiger should be at 17 and Jack at 20, but merely pointing out how fungible all of this really is. One could argue that television viewership and the media dictate which tournaments are considered majors more than the actual history of the sport does.

(If you’re looking for a somewhat similar example from the world of sports, here’s one from baseball: though no one has hit over .400 in a season since Ted Williams’ .406 mark in 1941, there was a stretch of over 162 games between 1993 and 1995 where Tony Gwynn hit .402. He doesn’t get credit for nearly equalling Williams’ record, nor should he, really, but it speaks to the fact that all too often we get caught up with arbitrary endpoints. It helps us categorize things, and tends to make life easier, but occasionally it lets greatness sneaks through the cracks.)

The Argument for Jack
The biggest argument for Jack is simply the fact that he’s won more major championships than Tiger Woods. Like it or not (and I think the fact that I just spent 1000 words in the previous few sections shows which side I come down on), that’s long been a big part of how we gauge career achievement in golf.

Tiger himself has always emphasized passing Jack’s record of 18 majors, and when asked in interviews continues to secede the GOAT title to Jack. Jack continues to say that he thinks Tiger will eventually eclipse his mark of 18 majors, even today in 2014.

An oft-cited statistic that would tend to show Jack’s consistency is the fact that he also finished second in 19 majors, and third in nine. Frankly, his record in majors in the 1970s is astounding - Jack missed the top 10 only five times (1970 and 1976 U.S. Opens, 1972, 1978, and 1979 PGAs). Tiger’s peak (1997-2008) was higher, and he won more frequently, but he also finished in the middle of the pack with somewhat more regularity. Later arguments will contextualize that a bit better.

Those are really the only valid argument for Jack as the greatest player of all time. For those keeping track, Jack's got a thicker head of hair than Tiger.

(Nicklaus supporters also love to talk about what a great competitor Jack was and how Tiger has never won when trailing after 54 holes, which is all too ironic coming a sentence after they mention Jack's 19 second-place finishes. I'm not sure what they think second place means, but most of the time it meant that someone beat super-competitive amazing über-closer Jack Nicklaus on the back nine on Sunday.)

Tiger Woods Jack Nicklaus 2012 Memorial Trophy

The Argument for Tiger
One of the more common assertions is that Jack Nicklaus faced greater competition. After all, he played against big names like Arnold Palmer (seven majors), Gary Player (nine), Tom Watson (eight), Lee Trevino (six), Seve Ballesteros (five), Ray Floyd (four), and Peter Thompson (five).

Over his career, I count about seven contemporaries (as in, they won at least one major between 1962 and 1986) of Jack that won four major championships. That compares favorably to Tiger, who can list only Phil Mickelson (five majors), Ernie Els (four majors), and ... that’s it. If we expand the list to players with three majors, Jack adds Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Julius Boros, and Larry Nelson, while Tiger adds only Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, and Payne Stewart. Taken at face value, that would tend to favor Jack Nicklaus.

But as I mentioned earlier, comparisons shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

The statistics section on the PGA Tour's website is great for many things. It's got analytics, real-time ShotLink data, and a wealth of up-to-date recent stats. But when you try to go back in time, it gets weak, fast. That makes any attempt to compare Jack to Tiger next to impossible - most stats only go back to 1980 or so, when Nicklaus was in the twilight of his career.

One of the most common arguments for Jack is his competition - he had to play against a bunch of multiple-time major winners. Tiger defenders will say that his competition was much deeper, that the number of players in the field capable of winning the events was far larger in Tiger's time, and the fact that fields being deeper in the 2000s should yield fewer dominant players.

It's not that there are no Lee Trevinos or Tom Watsons, the argument goes, it's that there are 75 of them, so it makes it hard for any one of them to pull ahead.

So, who's right?

When I started researching this portion, I knew I had to look at large amounts of data if I wanted to say anything conclusively over a somewhat short timeline. So I looked at two data sets: PGA Tour scoring leaders from 1980-2012, and PGA Tour money leaders from 1970-2008. For the scoring averages, I looked at the top 175 golfers from the year-end scoring leaders standings, and for the money leaders I shrunk it down to 125 golfers. I used a five-point rolling average just to smooth it out.

I used only data for even years, to cut down on time. All of my results were verified for statistical significance. I didn't have to make any modifications to the scoring data, but for the money list, I did have to put everything in terms of 2008 USD.

What I was looking for here out of these data sets was not the average - I knew going in that scoring was going to go down and money was going to go up - I wanted the standard deviation. In other words, how clustered were the players? How deep were the fields?

I knew I'd never be able to say conclusively if the average player in 1975 was better than the average player in 2005 (my only conclusion there: use some common sense), but I could surely say which year had tougher top-to-bottom, overall competition.

My hypothesis going in was that as time went on, both standard deviations should be going down. The data should get tighter, the fields deeper.

Scoring Average Standard Deviation Graph

Money Leaders Standard Deviation Graph

What you'll see there that my hypothesis appears to be correct. The fields are indeed deeper today than they used to be.

How much is, of course, up for discussion. The data only goes back to 1970 and 1980, so to make any claims beyond those years would require extrapolation. That said - based on the fact that even as recent as the 1970s, a large chunk of the field every week was club professionals - I'm pretty confident that if we had data going back farther, we'd see roughly the same shape.

Tiger's Case, Continued
Jack also tends to get credit for the fact that he did everything he did with persimmon woods, without perimeter weighting, and with balata golf balls. It’s a misconception, though, that this should somehow tip the scales towards Nicklaus. Sure, he was using that 1970s-era equipment, and we all shudder to think of how painful a mis-struck ball would have been on a cold morning, but it’s not like his competitors were sneaking in titanium woods from the future. That, coupled with the more mangy courses and lack of widespread fitness programs, only served to more differentiate the competition into the extremes haves and have-nots. Those who were really good got greater, while those who were just okay struggled more than they otherwise would.

Nowadays, Tiger (who used steel shafts in his woods longer than most players, for a long time gamed the Tour’s spinniest and shortest golf ball, and who has eschewed hybrids and cavity-backed irons his whole career) plays against players who get artificial help from solid-core golf balls, drivers with extreme MOI and gear effect, and irons that wouldn’t slice even if your life depended on it. This (as Jack himself has said many times) allows more players to play well, and tends to level the playing field. It becomes tougher to separate yourself. It disproportionately punishes the players who don’t need the help.

Woods also separates himself statistically in other ways. He’s won more on the PGA Tour than Jack (79 to 73); more times on the European Tour - though, obviously, the Euro Tour wasn’t founded until 1972, and the availability of chartered flights has certainly made playing overseas easier for Woods - (eight to zero); more PGA Tour Player of the Year awards (10 to five); more PGA Tour money titles (10 to eight); and more Vardon Trophies (nine to zero).

Over their first 70 majors, at which point they had both won 14, Jack’s aggregate score versus par was +78, while Tiger’s was an absolutely astounding -109.

He’s had a higher single-season win total (nine to seven); he’s led the PGA Tour in wins in a season more times (12 to five); missed far fewer cuts (10 to 88); and had a longer cut streak (142 to 109). Tiger’s scoring average has been a stroke and a half lower over his career; he’s won a higher percentage of tournaments, and a higher percentage of majors (even when you subtract the years Jack spent winless at the end of his career).

Just about any way you cut it, Woods has been more dominant against stiffer competition.

Tiger Woods 2014 Cadillac Doral Thursday

Breaking it Down Further
Over at the TST forum, one of the longest-running threads has been the seminal Tiger vs. Jack debate, which Tiger currently leads by a wide margin (though, it might be worth nothing, the thread was started years ago, and many votes were cast at a time when it was presumed that Tiger’s future winnings might exceed his past). Recently another thread has popped up, one that aims to look more specifically at how we compare the two eras.

The first post of that thread asked, simply, which was more impressive: winning 20 majors in the 1960s-1980s, or winning 17 majors in the 1990s-2010s (operating under the premise that U.S. Amateur titles should be counted as majors, as was often the case pre-Tiger).

The voting in that thread is approximately 85%-15% towards the latter. In other words, most voters believe that Tiger’s major wins have been the more impressive feat. Though the TST forum isn’t exactly a representative sample, I suspect that if you ask all golfers which is more impressive, the numbers would still heavily favor the recent 17 majors.

But I also think that if you asked most golfers who the greatest player of all time is, they’d say Jack Nicklaus. The long-running TST “Jack or Tiger” thread, which has been going since 2006 (a time when Tiger’s assumed future greatness meant as much as his to-date history, and when “Rachel Uchitel” wasn’t a household name), has Tiger a 69 percent favorite. I imagine if you polled everyone now, that number would be far lower. Certainly, if magazine editorials mean anything, you’d think that [insert your favorite deity here] himself could never live up to Jack’s greatness.

Whether it’s Tiger’s troubled personal history, Jack’s perceived good guy-ness, or just the fact that golfers (and golf writers and announcers) tend to be older, something is irrationally pushing people’s opinions towards Jack. For some reason “Jack vs. Tiger” is a different question than “20 majors in the 1960s-1980s vs. 17 majors in the 1990s-2010s."

(As an aside, it was later asked where one would draw the line. Are Jack’s 20 more impressive than Phil’s six? I would lean towards yes, though I think if Phil added a few more, maybe if he got to double digits, he might have argument. But Phil’s major win record is certainly more impressive than Hagen’s, or Palmer’s, or Hogan’s.)

Take, for example, this USA Today article. If your parameters are non sequiturs like “inspiration,” “ambassadorship,” “the lack of drama,” “it’s all about the Masters,” and “logo domination,” well, maybe the graphs I posted above won’t sway you.

To me, it's hogwash. To others, it's their childhood. I get that.

Closing and Your Thoughts?
I'm closing in on 3000 words here, and truth be told, I've probably swayed very few people. If you follow politics, you probably know that arguments, even fact-laden ones, tend to just push people further to the extremes. Those whose views previously matched mine might be even more entrenched, while those who disagreed might find a flaw or a stretch in one of my arguments and take that to mean the whole thing is invalidated. And so it goes.

The decision ultimately comes down to one question: do you believe that the differences in field strength (and other factors like PGA Tour wins and Vardon Trophies) make up for the discrepancies in majors? If you do, Tiger's your GOAT, otherwise it's still Jack's title. I tend to lean towards Tiger being unquestionably the greatest athlete ever to swing a golf club, though I'll admit that Jack's lead in majors keeps him in the contest in terms of career achievement.

Gun to my head, I'm taking Tiger.

Anyway, let me know what you think. Is Tiger still the best, regardless of what happens the rest of his career, or does Jack still have the GOAT title?

Photo Credits: © Patrick Smith, © Jeff Haynes, © Scott Halleran, © Jamie Squire.

Discussion

  1. Nice article! Who says engineers can't write? I would frame the answer as: Nicklaus has won the most majors of all time and is the GOAT for majors. Woods has won everything else and soon will have the most PGA tour wins and is the GOAT in everything else but majors. Woods also has more time, so this may change.

    The sad thing is even if Woods surpasses Nicklaus in majors, many will always pick Nicklaus because they like him better.

  2. JP Bouffard says:

    Nicely presented. A friend of mine and I had a broader discussion, similar to this, ranking our top 10 golfers ever. My belief is that it simplifies things a bit if you make _separate_ rankings for major championship golf versus all professional tournament golf. I believe this only because the definition of "majors" has changed through the years, and in some ways it isn't easy or fair to rank a career amateur like Bobby Jones against a modern touring professional, or even a contemporary pro of his like Hagen.

    In this way of thinking, I rank Jack as the better major championship player, and Tiger as the better all time professional tournament golfer.

    Jack's 19 or 20 second places are an astounding feat...as is his major record in the 1970s as you presented it. And while I concur with your general observation about overall competition being tougher today than in Jack's era, I'm not sure one can apply those season long stats to individual tournaments. I think it's possible that in any given _single major championship event_, whether in Jack's era or Tiger's, the number of players competing at a very high level, capable of winning, in that moment, was probably fairly similar across the eras.

    I freely admit I am not a fan of Tiger Woods, and I almost never rooted for him; I was an enthusiastic fan of Jack's as a child. Still, I have to rank Woods higher overall, even though I think Jack's major record is better.

    I think Tiger's downfall in recent years is sad. While I think it's _possible_ he will win another major championship, I think it's unlikely. I think his attitude, his self-belief, is no longer at the stratospheric level it once was, and once you lose that invincibility cloak, you aren't getting it back. The stats are all there....he won 5 times last year with less than great health, but the magic is gone.

  3. WUTiger says:

    I still want to divide golf history into eras.

    * Nicklaus was the greatest male golfer of the 20th Century. One of the first pros to emphasize physical conditioning. Did wonderful things with hard-to-hit long irons of the era.

    * Woods is the prototype of the 21st Century golfer. Has taken physical conditioning to the peak - will modern athletic training and surgical technique allow him to regain a strong, stable swing platform? Worked with Nike to perfect his own "brand" of golf clubs - knew how to maximize customization.

    I need to do some research - get the time lines right - but I may write a comparison of N and W in terms of career peaks and valleys - although for different reasons sometimes. There's parallels between the two which might not be evident to most.

    And Jamo, thanks for launching the discussion with a well-written piece!

  4. JP, I think you absolutely can apply them to individual tournaments. That's kind of the point - the same players play in those tournaments, after all.

    Tiger has to beat 80-100+ people capable of winning any given major. Jack had to beat 10 or 20. That also explains Jack's second-place finishes, too, which I don't think is terribly impressive.

    Tiger's 14 (or 17) major victories (Jack counted his U.S. Ams earlier in his career) are more impressive, to me, than Jack's 18 (or 20). Right now, today, I rank Tiger as a greater golfer than Jack, in all divisions.

  5. Rewster66 says:

    How can anyone present a better argument than the original post.

    TIGER!!!!

  6. Golfingdad says:

    Very nice, Jamo!! Great article. (And I'm patting myself on the back over here because I'm pretty sure I'm the one that asked where you drew the line between comparing the majors in different eras. ;))

  7. Vinsk says:

    Couldn't agree more with Erik. Spot on.

  8. CarlSpackler says:

    Great article. I personally think they are both outstanding and don't feel the need to pick a GOAT. If I had to, I would go with Jack. Why... because he's from Ohio. =D

  9. dfreuter415 says:

    Interesting article, but I disagree with one major point. Your argument that "I could surely say which year had tougher top-to-bottom, overall competition," is irrelevant.

    Top-to-bottom does not come into play when determining the best player. Middle-of-the-pack players are exactly that. They don't have any weight in the discussion of who is the best player. You only look to competition against top tier of players to determine relevancy, and Nicklaus in this case, is far superior.

    You confirm my point with your statement that "One of the more common assertions is that Jack Nicklaus faced greater competition. After all, he played against big names like Arnold Palmer (seven majors), Gary Player (nine), Tom Watson (eight), Lee Trevino (six), Seve Ballesteros (five), Ray Floyd (four), and Peter Thompson (five)." And then, "Tiger... can list only Phil Mickelson (five majors), Ernie Els (four majors), and ... that’s it. If we expand the list to players with three majors, Jack adds Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Julius Boros, and Larry Nelson, while Tiger adds only Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, and Payne Stewart."

    Even when they didn't win a major championship, their runner up finishes can tell you a lot. Tiger's 6 runner-up finishes were to Rich Beem, Y.E. Yang, Michael Campbell, Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman. These six golfers have a total of 22 PGA victories, 11 by Zach Johnson. Jack finished second 19 times to the likes of Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino, Ballesteros, and Johnny Miller. All members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

    I saw them both up live and personal in their primes. Both were quite impressive, and both were the dominant force on the tour. But, to me, no one will surpass The Golden Bear as the all-time greatest golfer.

  10. A well-written article which raises a number of points.
    1) Scoring will come down year on year owing to improvements in equipment. Tiger has better equipment available to him than Jack did, just as Jack had better equipment than Jones and Hagen. Essentially, more forgiving metal headed drivers, improved ball technology and crucially, the introduction of high lofted wedges in the 1980s. Improvements in equipment, have also, I think, contributed to the narrowing of the gap in the strength of the field. The average players have benefited more than the top men.
    2) It's not that here are no Lee Trevinos or Tom Watsons, there are 75 of them. Really? This I assume is the view of someone who never saw Trevino or Watson play at their peak (or Palmer, Player, Casper, Miller, Floyd, Irwin....) Who are their equals among current tour players? Which leads onto a point not covered in the article. If the tour is so much stronger in depth today, why are the Europeans, with a far smaller pool of talent, regularly winning the the Ryder Cup.
    Jacks record; team 5-0-1 individual 17-8-3
    Tigers record team 1-6-0 individual 13-17-3 Is Tiger playing in stronger teams?
    A comparison here:
    1981 US Team : Jack's last match as a player.
    Trevino, Floyd, Miller, Irwin, Pate, Kite, Nelson, Rogers, Lietzke, Crenshaw, Watson, Nicklaus
    2006 US Team : Tiger was at his peak.
    Mickelson, Furyk, Campbell, Toms, DiMarco, Taylor, Henry, Wetterich, Cink, Johnson, Verplank, Woods
    Man for man, is this an improvement depth?
    3) In terms of fair comparisons, "over their first 70 majors" - last week's Open was Tiger's 69th - Jack's first 8 were played as teenager or student, Tiger first 4 were as an amateur.
    4) The 1970s, a large chunk of the field every week was club professionals. Do you have any evidence for this? The first Q- School was in 1965 and all the qualifying card holders from then on would be full-time touring professionals.
    5) I have no problem with Tiger or Jack being regarded as the GOAT, as you point out there is reasonable evidence in both sides. However the suggestion that Mickelson's majors are more impressive than Hogan's is more contentious. World War 2 deprived Hogan (and Snead and Nelson) of ten opportunities to play in, and possibly win further majors. In 1953 Hogan's major record was, p 3 w 3 by 5, 6 and 4 strokes, true domination. Further, he played in a total of 58 majors, many, like Jack, long after his best. Mickelson has played in 88 majors, 4 as an amateur. In any ranking order of golfers Hogan has a strong case for being number 3 behind Jack and Tiger.
    6) Some opinions : in the Woods era, McIIroy is the first rival to potentially have equal ability.
    Unless Woods wins another 5 majors, his own benchmark, there will never be agreement.
    This article highlights the difficulties, (impossibilities ?) of comparing different eras, an example being Young Tom Morris scoring 149 for 36 holes in the Open championship of 1870, surely one of the most remarkable feats in golf.

  11. I'm sure the hypothesis is correct concerning strength of depth, and if that direction of travels continues, then on the same line of logic, will Rory McIlroy surpass them both when he wins his twelfth?

  12. I've been meaning to respond to some of the comments (I get an email automatically when someone comments, but Gmail often gobbles them up as spam), but I just saw this one from @FarawayFairways and wanted to quickly respond.

    I'm sure the hypothesis is correct concerning strength of depth, and if that direction of travels continues, then on the same line of logic, will Rory McIlroy surpass them both when he wins his twelfth

    It's entirely possible that in 20 years we could consider Rory to be the GOAT even with 12 majors. Remember, however, that the case for Tiger doesn't resolve solely around the relative field strengths. Despite Jack's edge in majors, Tiger beats him by almost every other measure. Tour wins, worldwide wins, scoring average, Vardon Trophies, POY awards, cuts missed, etc. If Rory beats Tiger in all of those and is only a major or two behind him, then he's got a really good case. Otherwise it's much messier.

  13. k-troop says:

    Best TST article I've ever read. Well done and very persuasive.

  14. zaxophne says:

    I'm just wondering where you got 7 for Hogans Major victories, what Tournaments are you counting? What are you discarding? 4 U.S. Opens, an Open Championship(British Open) 2 Masters, 2 PGA Championships. That comes out to 9.

  15. DwightC says:

    very nicely done. I disagree with your conclusion, but I enjoyed the ride!

    To put some meat on the bone of my response, I'd make a couple of observations:
    1. Let's expand the time horizon all the way back to the mid-19th century. That throws Old Tom Morris and Bobby Jones into the mix, each of whom, in his time, was considered the GOAT. If you do that, you really bring into relief how the changes in equipment and in the context in which the game was played bring into question of whole idea of a GOAT. As much as we may all get sick of TaylorMade, Calloway, Ping etc. R&D claims, there is no denying the difference between modern golf and the game played with hickories and featheries.
    2. Golfer's careers have trajectories and narratives. It's not just about statistics, and quantification, while seeming objective, hides its bias in its assumptions and presents an incomplete picture of accomplishment. You may not agree with that, but I believe it's true in sports generally. Jones retired from professional golf at the height of his prowess. Nicklaus managed the different phases of his career trajectory with grace and good judgement. The sad truth is that since 2008 Woods has made a hash of things, on a variety of fronts, and diminished rather than strengthened his career narrative.

  16. @zaxophne:

    I'm just wondering where you got 7 for Hogans Major victories, what Tournaments are you counting? What are you discarding? 4 U.S. Opens, an Open Championship(British Open) 2 Masters, 2 PGA Championships. That comes out to 9.

    Typo. Thanks for the heads up.

  17. Shivas-Irons says:

    Interesting analysis of a topic that gets people on both sides of the discussion fired up. You correctly acknowledge that the "Jack is the Greatest" crowd tends to romanticize the record that they recall with the fondness of their youth. On the other side, however, you fail to submit that the "Tiger is GOAT" crowd is filled with members of the YouTube generation who believe "If I did not see it, it did not happen". That generation also believes that the discussion of the "greatest Laker ever" begins and ends with Kobe.... but that's a topic for another board. (I am partial to Magic, but there are plenty of players worthy of inclusion in that debate, many of whom today's NBA fan wouldn't even recognize the name of).

    There are severe biases on both sides... and truthfully the answer to the question is determined by "How do you measure 'greatness'?" I have come up with what I think are 3 different (legitimate) definitions, and IMHO each definition yields a different answer to that enduring question.

    If you define "greatness" as the player who, at their peak, played golf at the highest level in history - I think that Tiger is your man. The way he decimated fields repeatedly around the turn of the millennium was as remarkable as it was unprecedented. Although Byron Nelson, who saw everyone (first-hand) from Jones to Tiger, would have handed that honor to Johnny Miller - who he said "played the best golf he witnessed in his lifetime when Miller was at his (brief) peak in the 70's". That said, 2 years does not the GOAT make... sorry, Lord Byron.

    If you measure the "greatest" as the player who played at a peak level of both dominance & consistency over the longest period of time, I think Nicklaus wins going away. In addition to his 18 major wins & almost 50 Top 3 finishes over his 25 year career - (as you noted) he was a perennial mainstay on the major championship leader board, He was a factor in nearly every single major that he entered over that period- an achievement that will likely never be equaled. (You could make a case he wasn't very clutch, because he won only 18 despite having a chance to win at least 3x that many... but the fact that he had that many chances shows just how good he was - ALL the time).

    If you asked "Who was the player that most dominated their contemporaries?", then I believe that must be Bobby Jones. The record he amassed, retiring from competition at the age of only 28, is an achievement that too few today acknowledge and recognize. Truly astounding.

    As for the "quality of competition" between Tiger and Jack, you rightly assert that Tiger beat deeper fields, without doubt. I admit, however, that I think Jack bested a more legitimate group of fierce competitors. I attribute both phenomena to the insane purses on tour today. The money has attracted more quality players to dedicate their life to golf... and it has also made many of them "fat & happy" without ever having to achieve anything truly meaningful in the game. (Think how much fame and notoriety Couples and Norman share... they have 3 majors between them).

    As for your inference that Tiger was the finest "athlete" of the golfing greats. It's certainly a popular notion - but I'll defer to Thomas Paine's feelings on "conventional wisdom". Tiger is certainly the most sculpted and fit, but I know a lot of gym rats/ workout warriors that I would not define as "athletes" by any measure. I think his obsession with fitness has other roots, and he was so focused on golf exclusively throughout his life that it's impossible to measure.

    Sam Snead was reportedly a tremendous athlete (across multiple sports)... and Hale Irwin played D1 football at the University of Colorado. As for Nicklaus (unbeknownst to most), he first attended Ohio State on a basketball scholarship (with a class that also included John Havlicek & Bobby Knight), in addition to having been a very good football & baseball player. He fattened up his freshman year in the frat house - but was quite an accomplished athlete in his youth (actually excelling in sports other than golf).

  18. allin says:

    I am skeptical of statistical measurement of field strength being as dominant a factor as presented. Irregardless of the over all field strength it is the number of players with a real chance to win that matters. While this would still favor Tiger, it does weaken the argument. Certainly at his peak Tiger was the more dominant golfer. Does that mean he is the GOAT?

    In addition many of the other measurements were based on tournaments wins in regular tournaments, world wide etc. Tiger has consistently avoided playing on courses he does not like or do not suit him, Jack, at least until age 30 or so had less ability to do so, had a shorter playing season etc. Also each era has invitation only events. PGA certification of marginal events, like his own Target challenge event inflates Tigers total wins and over seas and events like world match play events which did not even exist in Jacks era. What about Ryder cup performance, Neither has been as dominant as one would expect. I think it is relevant to note that Tigers win percentage etc may decline significantly. Reliance on statistical measures in eras with such significant differences is marginal at best. The only fair way is to compare each and their relative dominance in their own era. A strong case is made for Tiger on this basis. I do feel that there is a role for subjective judgement as well. For example should Tigers physical issues be a plus or minus? Although Jack had Hip and back problems through much of his career I do not believe he had any where near the severity of injuries Tiger has had.

    The desire to always declare the most recent great player the best based on statistical measures will always be flawed, it is never possible to adjust for factors liked difficulty of travel, Jack traveled by car for much of the first five years of his pro career. The real question should be if Tiger played in Jacks era with that eras training methods, equipment etc and Jack in this era can anyone really say who would be better?

  19. earplugguy says:

    By Tiger's own standards…..Jack still has him beat and has the only record that matters to a professional golfer.

  20. @earplugguy:

    By Tiger's own standards…..Jack still has him beat and has the only record that matters to a professional golfer.

    That works out perfectly, since I'm not a professional golfer! :-)

    @allin:

    I am skeptical of statistical measurement of field strength being as dominant a factor as presented. Irregardless of the over all field strength it is the number of players with a real chance to win that matters. While this would still favor Tiger, it does weaken the argument.

    I would say that today more golfers have a chance to win week to week, which would say the opposite about the argument.

    Certainly at his peak Tiger was the more dominant golfer. Does that mean he is the GOAT?

    Maybe. I don't know. I didn't use that to argue my point for a reason.

    In addition many of the other measurements were based on tournaments wins in regular tournaments, world wide etc. Tiger has consistently avoided playing on courses he does not like or do not suit him, Jack, at least until age 30 or so had less ability to do so, had a shorter playing season etc.

    Tiger plays around 20 events a year, and has pretty incredible records at just about every course they play on. He's avoided Riviera for a decade, but other than that he's really just playing in the biggest 20 or so events. He's even won multiple times at courses that he's said he don't particularly fit his eye, like TPC Sawgrass.

    His major championships resume similarly would disagree with your point. Aside from his five Augusta wins, he's only doubled up on two courses: St. Andrews and Medinah. All of the times he won at those courses were in '99-'00 and '05-'06, arguably his two most dominant stretches, when he probably won just about anywhere. (Not that I'm using that as an argument. Just pointing it out.)

    If he'd added a win at St. Andrews or Pebble in 2010, 2009 at Hazeltine or Bethpage, or Valhalla in 1996 or 2014, maybe I'd agree more. But he won his 14 majors at a pretty wide variety of courses.

    Also each era has invitation only events. PGA certification of marginal events, like his own Target challenge event inflates Tigers total wins and over seas and events like world match play events which did not even exist in Jacks era.

    Tiger's Northwestern Mutual World Challenge (new corporate sponsor, so says Wikipedia) event wins are not counted among his 79 career PGA Tour victories.

    I think it is relevant to note that Tigers win percentage etc may decline significantly.

    Probably. A lot of those stats are "...through X events" or "...through X majors" though.

    For example should Tigers physical issues be a plus or minus? Although Jack had Hip and back problems through much of his career I do not believe he had any where near the severity of injuries Tiger has had.

    There's a reason I didn't talk about this stuff in the article. It's subjective. I could say that Tiger won so much in spite of his injuries, or that Jack was smart/good enough to avoid injuries.

    The desire to always declare the most recent great player the best based on statistical measures will always be flawed...

    Flawed, sure.

    ...it is never possible to adjust for factors liked difficulty of travel, Jack traveled by car for much of the first five years of his pro career.

    Jack's competitors were also traveling by car, while Tiger's were also traveling by plane. (Both for the most part.)

    The real question should be if Tiger played in Jacks era with that eras training methods, equipment etc and Jack in this era can anyone really say who would be better?

    As I pointed out and linked to in the article, Jack has said himself that the equipment and training makes it easier for more guys to compete. That makes it tougher to be dominant.

    @Shivas-Irons:

    As for your inference that Tiger was the finest "athlete" of the golfing greats. It's certainly a popular notion - but I'll defer to Thomas Paine's feelings on "conventional wisdom". Tiger is certainly the most sculpted and fit, but I know a lot of gym rats/ workout warriors that I would not define as "athletes" by any measure. I think his obsession with fitness has other roots, and he was so focused on golf exclusively throughout his life that it's impossible to measure. Sam Snead was reportedly a tremendous athlete (across multiple sports)... and Hale Irwin played D1 football at the University of Colorado. As for Nicklaus (unbeknownst to most), he first attended Ohio State on a basketball scholarship (with a class that also included John Havlicek & Bobby Knight), in addition to having been a very good football & baseball player. He fattened up his freshman year in the frat house - but was quite an accomplished athlete in his youth (actually excelling in sports other than golf).

    FWIW, I didn't really mean anything when I called Tiger the greatest "athlete" to pick up a golf club. I just got tired of saying "golfer" and wanted to find a new word. I wasn't speaking to Tiger's athleticism or anything like that. I should've made that clearer in-text.

  21. Alynprm says:

    Completely wrong. Two major problems with your article. First thing stroke average is not a fair comparison. The courses and equipment are miles better helping the top players scoring average. Next I will quote from Tiger Woods's own mouth, "The number to beat is 18, currently Jack Nicklaus owns that record and until someone passes that number Jack Nicklaus will be golf's greatest golfer."

    It is not how it looks, it is not how it is done, it is that you have to pass 18 Major Championships to get it accomplished.

    The reason we value majors is that ALL of the best players play. When you can beat all of the best players 18 times throughout the years you are the best. Until this year I thought Tiger was going to do it. I don't see that happening anymore. He is not close to being the best and you have to be the best to continually win majors. Also I don't see Mcillroy getting past 8 at most. Too many outside distractions

  22. @Alynprm, welcome to the site.

    Completely wrong. Two major problems with your article. First thing stroke average is not a fair comparison. The courses and equipment are miles better helping the top players scoring average.

    Did you read above where Jamieson wrote: "What I was looking for here out of these data sets was not the average - I knew going in that scoring was going to go down and money was going to go up - I wanted the standard deviation. In other words, how clustered were the players? How deep were the fields?"

    Next I will quote from Tiger Woods's own mouth…

    How about when Jack Nicklaus said that average golfers of today would have been superstars in his time, and that the strength and depth of the fields have improved remarkably.

    IMO, 14 against modern fields and players is awfully darn close to 18 in Jack's day.

    It's just like any other sport. Is winning the Stanley Cup more difficult now than it was in 1915? Absolutely. But while the Canadiens still get credit for 24 wins, the smart hockey fan realizes that a whole lot of them came against significantly fewer teams.

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