Tiger vs. Jack – A Different Perspective

This isn’t about the magical number of 18, or even 19, but rather about a magical year in golf.

Thrash TalkIf you only read the title of this article you might think this is another comparison on who is the best golfer of all time. No, considering the stall that Tiger has had in his current play it really ends the debate for now. Over the course of his career Jack is by far the better player. More major victories, 18 versus 14, but what really puts Jack over the top for me is the number of second-place finishes in majors, 19 versus six. And if you include top-ten finishes in majors Jack really starts to pull away.

In the bar last week I made the hypothesis that 2000 for Tiger was better than any single year that Jack had. When I started looking into it I was definitely right. Jack’s best year was 1972 when he won the Masters, the U.S. Open, finished second at the Open Championship, and tied for 13th at the PGA. Jack had an excellent 1980 when he won the U.S. Open and the PGA, but 1972 was better. To be frank when I looked into it Jack had an incredible run in the 1970s. He was in the hunt in almost ever major played during those years, but not only in the hunt but he had an enormous amount of top tens. Still 1972 was a great year but it was no match for Tiger’s 2000.

In 2000 Tiger started by finishing fifth at the Masters, then at Pebble he did not just win the U.S. Open he obliterated the field. He finished 12 under par and Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez who finished second were both three over. He then went on to win the Open Championship by eight shots and the PGA in a playoff. He finished off the “Tiger Slam” in 2001 with a win at Augusta National in the Masters. In 2000 Tiger teed it up in 20 tournaments and won nine of them. Although Jack had no World Golf Championships, Tiger did had one of those at Firestone. And, if not for Hal Sutton’s “be the right club today!” he would have added a Players (the unofficial fifth major) to his trophy case as well. Truly an incredible year.

Tiger and Jack

One counterargument is that Jack had tougher competition in 1972, including the likes of Lee Trevino, Gary Player, and an older but still active Arnold Palmer. There are others I am forgetting but there is a large number of majors collected by that group alone, so they knew how to get it done. The list of major competitors for Tiger is not nearly as impressive, Vijay was at the top of his game at that time but he hardly had the game to compete at all four of the majors. At that point a majorless Phil Mickelson and David Duval, and the biggest competitor in terms of major wins was probably Ernie Els.

2000 was probably the start of what many call “parity” that golf was starting to form. Meaning that many different players could come up at any time and win a major. The thing is that Tiger was so dominant that the likelihood of others winning a major was much lower. Jack was certainly intimidating but it seems the players of his day were not as intimidated by his presence on the leaderboard.

When I analyze it further Tiger 2000 is likely the best year had by any player ever in the majors. Ben Hogan’s 1953 was virtually a grand slam considering he could only play in three majors and he won each one. If Ben has healthy there is no telling how great 1953 could have been, it may have rivaled Byron’s 1945 in terms of wins. The thing about 1953 is that they had not really identified each of the three tournaments as majors during that time period. Case in point is that the PGA and Open Championship were played on virtually the same weekend. The Masters although a very prestigious tournament did not share the status that it does today.

Bobby Jones season in 1930 is another candidate for a best year in the majors, and what impressed me about Jones season was that he had to win so many matches in match play to win them. You would think eventually you would run into a hot player somewhere who could beat him. And if we consider the greatest year in golf you must say that Byron Nelson’s 1945 was definitely the best. He won 18 tournaments out of 36, and of course had the streak of 11 in a row. That record is safer than DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. No modern golfer will ever even come close. Still, considering the global game that golf had become by 2000 Tiger faced much deeper fields than these other players. The amount of money in golf by this time had drawn very talented athletes to golf more than ever before.

The funny thing about someone like me writing this article is I am not a Tiger fan. In fact I am one of those rooting against him, I am a Phil fan, and as I will argue at a later date you are either one or the other. Considering that I am unable to deny the greatness of Tiger’s dominant 2000. It was truly a special year as I argued the best year had by any player in the majors.

Photo Credits: © AP.

8 thoughts on “Tiger vs. Jack – A Different Perspective”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree Tiger had the best single year in history. Also, I contend that his staggering feat of holding all four major titles at once something that will probably never be equalled.

    I do wish to quibble about one point; you view Jack as the better player because of his 2nd-place finishes and top-10s in majors.

    The problem lies, again, in the depth of field. If you agree that deepening of the pro fields make it harder than before to gain victories, the same must apply to 2nds and top-10s. Indeed, the effect should be amplified the lower down the rankings you go.

    Just imagine how much easier it was for an elite golfer to get a top-10 when most of the talent was cluttered in the the top 5! Nowadays, if you want a top-10, you must finish ahead of dozens of elite players – guys who would have played circles around their counterparts from 45 years ago.

    Look at the some of the names of those who finished 11-20 last week: Francesco Molinari, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Nick Watney, Graeme McDowell, etc. I submit that Jack would have made a lot fewer 2nds and top-10s (to say nothing of victories) if he’d had to face that kind of talent.

    (Just to play devil’s advocate, let me acknowledge that it was not Jack’s fault he faced weaker fields; he should not be penalised in our assessment. But by the same token, any comparison between eras MUST make some kind allowance for this.)

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. The comparison because they played in such different eras is always going to be tough. The reason I think the fields appear so deep today in my opinion is the equipment. I think the wooden driver makes guys be more precise and the really great players can separate themselves from the field because it required such precision. It would be an easy argument that Tiger might actually have been even more dominant in 2000 if the PGA still required wooden drivers. The big headed drivers of today bring guys who might not have been a factor into the mix. I think that is an excellent topic for other article.

  3. i don’t know…. Jack was hitting 300 yard tee shots with persimmon heads and balata balls on golf courses that weren’t groomed as perfectly as they are today. And i think our idea of what constitutes a weak or a strong field is skewed because we relate better to the players we see on TV today. I guarantee half the guys on tour right now couldn’t sniff Jack’s ass with the equipment they played with in the 60s and 70s. Let’s also not forget, since purses were a lot smaller back then, Jack had to play in more tournaments and traveling was a little more difficult. Plus Jack started his family earlier than Tiger. All together, that’s a lot of stress to endure. Jack is definitely the better golfer.

  4. Several points. Does “parity” and “deeper fields” imply that winning has become more difficult for the elite players or that the cut mark has become lower ? (The average players are better.) During his career Nicklaus was competing against Palmer, Player, Casper, Trevino, Miller and Watson. Perhaps knotch below were such as Floyd, Weiskopf, Irwin, Crenshaw, Kite, Wadkins and Nelson. Woods opposition has been Duval, Mickelson, Singh, Els, Furyk, Cink, Stricker, Montgomerie, Harrington. Alternatively; the 1981 US Ryder Cup team was Trevino, Nelson, Rogers, Liezke, Irwin, Floyd, Watson, Nicklaus, Miller, Crenshaw, Kite and Pate. The 2006 team was Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, Campbell, Toms, DiMarco, Taylor, Henry, Wetterich, Cink, Verplank and Johnson. I don’t see an argument that winning was easier for Nicklaus. Compared with the top players of the Nicklaus era, how many of Woods’ contemporaries are candidates for an all-time top fifty ?

  5. Twittek,
    Agreed, Nicklaus distinguished himself by being able to perform on the more primitive equipment. he could hit a 1-iron off hard pan. But I think that actually supports my contention that it is harder to win today. If you could send modern gear back in time, Jack’s opponents (once they got used to it) would have had an easier time keeping up with him. Thus, he would have won less. The new gear allows players who are merely good to close the gap between themselves and the great players.
    The growth in purse sizes also supports my view, IMO. There is just so much more incentive for talented players to try for their tour card. The bigger the purse, the more competition there will be to win it. Not only will they try for it, they will work harder, hire teachers and psychologists, and engage in all kinds of fitness training that was a rarity in Jack’s day. That is another reason it gets harder to win over the decades.
    About the competition – My point is not that 2nd and 3rd-echelon players are better now (even though I suspect they are). My point is that the lower-ranked players (4th-echelon and below) are much better today than their counterparts were in Jack’s day. Hence, there are many more guys on the course with a realistic chance of getting hot and winning. This is the biggest reason, IMO, that it’s harder to win now – and getting harder.
    Look at all the one-hit wonders who steal majors these days. And what do you think guys like Yang or Oosthuizen would do to the competition if they were transported back in time 50 years? I contend that they would kick butt in a big way. Jack would still have proven himself better, but he would have had a harder time doing it.
    It’s really inevitable that, with exponential growth in the numbers of golfers in the world since the 60’s, that the quality of play among the pros will improve. The bigger the talent pool, the better the quality near the top. That is why AAAAA High School football teams always beat AA High Schools. Wouldn’t you expect a high school with 1500 seniors to field a better team than a school with 150 seniors? And wouldn’t that still be the case if the best single player happened to attend the smaller school?
    By the same token, the top 150 golfers in the world are bound to be better (on average) than the top 150 from 1962, when the talent pool was a fraction of the size of today’s.
    Sorry I got carried away. I will shut up now. JP

  6. How can anyone believe that the equipment differences have anything to do with their performances? They played with different technologies … but so did every player playing during each era. One could argue that if Jack had today’s technology he’d easily go toe to toe with Tiger. Tiger was a great player and easily the best player of the last ten years, but his domination of lesser competition doesn’t automatically make him a better all-time player than Jack. Tiger only has six second place major finishes compared to Jack’s unbelievable 19. It’s undeniable Jack’s competition was more accomplished than Tiger’s, making his 37 combined first and second place finishes that much more impressive than Tiger’s meager 20. Sorry Tiger fans, but Jack is greatest golfer ever and I don’t see Tiger ever taking that title from him.

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