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 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.