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Tiger vrs Nicklaus? What about Vardon, Jones, Hagen and Hogan?


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For the last year or so I've been reading some golf history books, mostly biographies of older era golfers. The more I read about them, the more I am impressed by their records and abilities. My thesis here is that it is a mistake to rule older era golfers out of the "greatest golfer of all time" argument. I haven't come to a firm conclusion myself whether or not any of them are better than Nicklaus or Woods, but I think several arguments can be made in their favor. The key matter that brings them into contention is the unfair measuring stick of Nicklaus' 18 major victories. The older era golfers couldn't possibly have won so many majors for the simple reason that they didn't have the opportunity to compete in as many majors as modern era golfers. Given their major winning percentages, it is easy to project 18 or more majors for many of them by entering them into as many theoretical majors as the modern era golfers play in.

I am prepared to discuss most older era golfers in these terms on a case by case basis, but I would like to first see how much interest there is on the board and if anyone else has some thoughts to contribute right off the bat. I don't claim to be an expert on old era golf and there are a lot of gaps my information. Part of the reason I wanted to start this thread was in the hope of adding to my own knowledge. Also, an active discussion will naturally lead to many interesting side issues, such as equipment changes, rule changes, tour changes, how to define the best athelete in any sport and even issues related to the nature of the golf itself.
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For the last year or so I've been reading some golf history books, mostly biographies of older era golfers. The more I read about them, the more I am impressed by their records and abilities. My thesis here is that it is a mistake to rule older era golfers out of the "greatest golfer of all time" argument. I haven't come to a firm conclusion myself whether or not any of them are better than Nicklaus or Woods, but I think several arguments can be made in their favor. The key matter that brings them into contention is the unfair measuring stick of Nicklaus' 18 major victories. The older era golfers couldn't possibly have won so many majors for the simple reason that they didn't have the opportunity to compete in as many majors as modern era golfers. Given their major winning percentages, it is easy to project 18 or more majors for many of them by entering them into as many theoretical majors as the modern era golfers play in.

Such a well written post, yet I cannot get past your assertation that Phil faked his wrist injury!

I'm always entertained by these 'who's the greatest' type posts. It's obvious, we'll will never know. The game is too different to be compared. Apples and Oranges. Sure, it's fun to give an opinion, but nobody is right IMO. If you had a season's worth of tournaments with the Greats playing their best golf using their equipment of the time, it wouldn't be close...Tiger would blow away the fields...or would he?? Are we talking about today's super long courses or yester-years shotmaker's golf courses? We can never know how good the Greats would play using today's equipment (ballistic golf balls, square grooves, titanium heads, graphite shafts, etc/). How would they putt on todays super fast greens? I think the players who popped the ball with their hands and wrists would not do as well on today's surfaces. The swing has changed as well. Bobby Jones had to swing the club much differently because of the hickory shaft. He would have to go through a major swing change to compete today. All the leg action of the 60's and 70's? Gone. I think the swing has gone beyond centrifugal force. The torso is involved so much more today. One more little thing to consider...the pro golf game was not as widespread as it is today. The game wasn't as accessible as it is today. No college programs, no mini tours, or Nationwide Tour. We'll never know how many other great golfers were never discovered or even got the chance to play back in the 20's-50's. With that, I'd say the competition wasn't as stiff back then. No disrespect, but who was Byron beating during his winning streak? IMO, if each played in his own era, I'd still give the nod to Tiger.
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All very good points, powerfade.

To refine the discussion, let's assume a couple of things.

We are defining the "greatest" golfer as the one who most dominated his peers during his era. This eliminates many of the variables you alluded to. It is also a legitimate measurement used in many sports where the differences between eras are even more pronounced than golf ie football and basketball. As you pointed out - and it is quite often acknowledged by people discussing other sports - there are many reasons that comparing athletes from different eras playing head to head isn't really possible.

Also, before anybody brings it up, we are going to pencil in Woods with 18 career majors just for the sake of argument. That shouldn't be so controversial today as it was a couple of years ago.

Number of majors won seems to me the primary way to determine how dominant a player was during his era. There are other considerations, say Snead's career 80 something wins, but in golf it's mostly all about the majors.

Let me bring up the case of Harry Vardon. Vardon won 6 British Opens and one US Open. As far as I know he only played in 3 US Opens, finishing 1st in 1900, 2nd in 1911 and 2nd in 1920 (at age 50!). There was of course no Masters during his career and the PGA Championshiop didn't start until 1915, when he was 45. Furthermore, he was laid out for two years during his prime winning period (1902-1903) with a severe case of tuberculosis that almost killed him, yet he came back to win majors anyway. It is thought that a residual nerve problem in his hand from the bout with TB ruined his putting stroke and cost him several more championships post 1903. He turned professional in 1890 at age 20 and won his last British Open in 1914 at age 44 (matching Jack's '86 Masters heroics). So let's say that like Jack, he competed for 25 years in major winning form. That's 100 majors entered by Jack vrs only 26 for Vardon (23 British Opens plus 3 US Opens). His winning percentage is 7 divided by 26 or 27 pct vrs Jacks 18 pct.

Who dominated his peers more, Jack Nicklaus or Harry Vardon?
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Daryl,

What have been some of the books you have enjoyed? I recently read the novel, The Caddy Who Knew Ben Hogan, which raised my interset in golf history and Hogan in particular. Thanks in advance.
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Sure dude.

Mark Frost wrote "The Greatest Game Ever Played" about the 1914 US Open. It is basically a biography of Vardon.

Frost then wrote a biography of Bobby Jones.

I read the Hogan biography by a guy named Dodson, I think.

I read Bryon Nelson's autobiography titled "How I Played the Game"

And Nicklaus's autobiography call "My Way"? Don't remember. Search on Amazon, you will find them all.
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