Trying 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?