JACK VS. TIGER
WHO IS THE GREATEST GOLFER OF ALL TIME?
With every victory Tiger Woods adds to his amazing resume, the question gets asked, "is Tiger the greatest golfer of all time, or does that honor still belong to the legendary Jack Nicklaus? Here we'll compare Jacks' first 19 seasons,(his best) with Tigers first 16 seasons, to see how Tiger and Jack match up. (High-lighted "Golden Bear yellow" or "Tiger Sunday Red"areas indicate edge to that player. Green indicates what we consider a more useful statistic for comparison.)
(This article was written in April 2008 and updated in June 2013 after the U.S. Open. We believe Tiger can still make a run at Jack's records, athough no longer a slam dunk by any stretch.)
(High-lighted "Golden Bear yellow" or "Tiger Sunday Red"areas indicate edge to that player. Green indicates what we consider a more useful statistic for comparison.)
|Tale of the tape||
Born Jan. 21, 1940. 5'11, 190lbs
|Born Dec. 30, 1975. 6'1", 185lbs|
|Year turned pro||1962||1996|
|Years used in evaluation||
1962-1980 (Jack's best)
|1996-present (June, 2013)|
|PGA tour victories||
70 (19 seasons)
83 (18 seasons)
|PGA events played||370||296|
|% finished in top 2||31%||38.1%|
|% finished in top 3||39.5%||45.2%|
|Winning % in Majors||22.3%||22.2%|
|2nd place in Major||15||6|
|% finished in top 2||42.1%||31.7%|
|3rd place in Major||9||5|
|% finished in top 3||53.9%||39.6%|
|Vardon Trophy Awards (low stroke avg. for year)||8 (64,65,71-73,75&76)||7 (99,00-03,05&07)|
|Leading Money Winner||8 (64,65,67,71-73,75&76)||9 (97,99,00-03,05-07)|
|Ryder Cup Record(overall)||17-8-3||10-13-2|
|Ryder Cup Record (Singles)||4-4-2||3-1-1|
|Strength of Competition in Majors (# of Majors won by runner up)||
Total Majors won by runner up to Jack (37)
Gary Player(9) Arnold Palmer(7) Ray Floyd(4) Bruce Crampton(4), Billy Casper(3), Ben Crenshaw(2), Johnny Miller(2), Doug Sanders(2), Tom Kite(1), Tom Weiskopf(1), Tommy Jacobs(1), Tony Lema(1)
(may be more than 1 runner up)
(6 runner ups with zero major victories-35.2%)
Total Majors won by runner up to Tiger (15)
Phil Mickleson(3) ,Ernie Els(3) Tom Kite(1), Retief Goosen(2), Chris DeMarco(2), David Duval(1), Woody Austin(1), Shaun Micheel(1)
(may be more than 1 runner up)
(7 runner ups with zero major victories-50%)
|Strength of competition in Majors based on All Time Rank.||9 of top 25 golfers of All Time finished 2nd to Jack in a major.||1 of top 25 golfers of all time finished 2nd to Tiger. (Phil Mickleson, #23. Next closest Mark O'Meara #49)|
It's easy to see from the chart above that Tiger has a better winning % than Jack and still has time to get his act together and break Jack Nicklaus' 18 Major victories one day. (Note: as of August 10th, 2011: If Tiger plays in tomorrows PGA and 4 majors next season without a victory, his winning % in majors would drop below Jack's in this category and switch from red to gold.)
It's also important to note that Jack leads, and will probably never be caught by Tiger in number of 2nd and 3rd place finishes. This stat is relevant in comparing the two players because of the disparity between the quality of upper echelon player in both time periods. Jack's numerous 2nd and 3rd place finishes indicate that he was almost always a factor and in position to win often, not that he couldn't close the deal. Coming in 2nd to the likes of Palmer, Player, Floyd and Watson carries no shame. Tiger, on the other hand has no rival, no threat to beat him every weekend.
If Tiger and Jack played in each others' time, wouldn't Tiger have more trouble beating the likes of Palmer, Player, Casper, Floyd, Watson, Trevino, Miller and Crenshaw than he does against the players of today?
And how would a young Jack Nicklaus do today in Tiger's place playing against Mickelson, Els, Singh, Goosen, DeMarco and Austin instead of Palmer et. all? Isn't it safe to say that half or more of Jack's 2nd and 3rd place finishes would have been victories had Jack played in today's golfing era without all those legends chasing him every weekend?
I see what Tiger does every weekend and am amazed. He's just a phenomenal player, without whom the game would be almost not worth watching. (The PGA stopped using the slogan "These guys are good" because they realized everyone was thinking it should really be "This guy is good".)
I also remember watching Jack as a kid and how amazing he was as well. The charge of the Golden Bear was great to watch, and often he was being challenged by one or more already legendary golfers. It was a great time for golf. Unfortunately for Tiger he doesn't have this kind of competition. His "rivals"seem to wilt at the mere site of that Crimson shirt. A wilting you didn't get from 9 of the top 25 golfers of all time that Jack faced in his day.
So when looking at the number of wins, or the number of majors, it's also important to add the intangible of WHO they were won against. If Jack went out today at 71 years old and played in "a Major" against you and your Saturday 4-some he'd probably win his 19th Major! Does it matter who he beat or just that he won?
Because of this I don't think Tiger will ever be able to hold the title "Greatest Golfer Ever" even if he wins 30 majors, nor should he. Nicklaus was just "beyond great" at a time when being great was a title held by 8 or 10 players! Just as Nicklaus had his Palmer and Player, and Ali had his Fraiser and Foreman, Tiger needed someone to challenge him week in and week out to even possibly be considered "The Greatest". Right now that someone just isn't out there, and even if he arrives tomorrow it's most likely already too late.
In the end I think the only fair conclusion is to call it a draw. I don't think anyone can ever be "better" than Jack Nicklaus, or Babe Ruth, or Muhammad Ali, or Tiger Woods for that matter. You just can't! Both Jack and Tiger are being honored when they are considered to be "as great" as the other.
They say a tie is like kissing your sister, but in this case your sister is Marisa Miller and you haven't seen her for a very long time!
See also Tonks vs. Tiger
Comment from Leon P. (June 2010)
Those who believe Jack was better than Tiger are resorting to a couple of bits of circular logic:
1. The quality of Jack's and Tiger's opposition cannot be assessed by comparing their records in major championships. It was far easier to win majors in Jack's day because the depth of field was tiny compared to today. The middle and lower-echelon pros of today are far, far superior to those of Jack's era. How could it not be so, given the enormous increase in the size of the talent pool?
Today, even guys like Rocco Mediate have realistic chance to beat the best. Jack was not threatened by so many highly skilled players week in and week out. Nor did Jack have to face so many top-quality players from Europe and Asia.
Compare the fields, and it becomes obvious why Jack's opposition won so many majors in comparison with Tiger's opposition. The small group of guys who challenged Jack had the playground to themselves. They drove up their winning percentage in a way they could not possibly do today. To say that Jack is better because he beat more "legends" is a case of circular logic, because few of those players would earn such a title if they were competing today.
2. To say that Tiger's opposition is poor because they consistently loose to him is also a case of circular logic. It penalizes Tiger for winning! The fact that so few players can catch Tiger from behind does not show the opposition is weak; it shows that Tiger is the greatest frontrunner of all time.
3. It is grasping at straws to include 2nd and 3rd-place finishes in comparing the records of Jack and Tiger. Such an approach assigns as much value to falling short as to winning. It looks impressing to say Jack was 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in 54% of his majors, compared to Tiger's 46%. While it is true that Jack deserves credit for coming close in more of his losses than Tiger has, they were still losses. If we are to compare "top3" finishes, much more weight ought to be given to 1st place finishes.
Furthermore, a 2nd or 3rd-place finish today is more meaningful than in Jack's day - again because the number of players in the top echelon was so small. When Jack fell a little short, he might finish 2nd or 3rd. If you fall a little short in the modern era, you are likely to find yourself out of the top 10, because so many more good players are waiting to sweep past you.
The best way to compare Jack and Tiger is by looking at their winning percentages. This eliminates such factors as course quality or equipment. Tiger wins more often, against a much deeper field of excellent golfers.
It is true that we can never know how well Jack would do if he played today, any more than we can know the same about Babe Ruth. For this reason, we can never reach absolute certainty in this debate. But one thing is sure: one cannot claim that Jack is the better golfer on the basis of the quality of his competition.
I close with a thought experiment: let Jack and Tiger swap eras. Who would fare better, Jack Nicklaus in the present day, or Tiger Woods transported back to 1964? Now, try the same thing in other sports: swap Kobe Bryant with Pete Maravich. Swap Roger Federer with Arthur Ash. See what I mean?
ISAG short response: Swap Muhammed Ali with whomever the Heavyweight champions are today. Ali is still The Greatest. Back to Golf, judging from what I saw watching both Jack and Tiger in their prime, I think Jack Nicklaus was the best player I ever saw. A fair comparison could only be made if you could have Tiger and Jack born in the same year, with the same tools at their disposal and then see who would grow up to be the greatest ever. Tiger is bigger and stronger, Jack is savior and as fierce if not more fierce a competitor. And as for the Babe Ruth example...The Babe hit more home runs in one season than most other TEAMS did. Plus he would have been a Hall of Fame pitcher had he not been such a great hitter. So that one is hands down, he was and is the best baseball player ever. As for the larger pool of players, granted that is somewhat true given that golf is now available to more, especially here in the states. But there are also more Rock Bands today then in Jack's time. Does that mean the bands today are necessarily better than The Beatles, Stones and The Who?
However we love the argument, well thought out and certainly not wrong. It's a matter of opinion. Great job and thanks for writing us!
ISAG follow up post 2010 U.S. Open: (June 22nd, 2010): Ok, the U.S. Open ended yesterday. The bloke from Ireland won shooting 75 on the final day. Have you ever witnessed a major where everyone folded on the final day? That was ugly. Had Tiger shot even par he'd have another major under his belt. Even par! Have you ever seen the last 4 groups shoot this bad on Sunday of a major. No one stepped up. Even the winner was 3 over. This was not an extremely tough track. We've got par 5's that were being hit with irons. The rough was not U.S. Open depth rough. It seemed like every time the announcer called a shot he was saying how the guy had the wrong club, or that everyone was leaving this put short, or you can't miss to this side or that side and over and over these guys were doing exactly what they shouldn't be doing. It was pretty bad.
Now to our point about the strength of competition; I don't recall ever watching a major where the whole field floundered. This is the field that we've gotten so many comments on about how strong they are as a whole compared to Jack's day. These guys all collapsed and had Tiger shot a mediocre round he'd have another win and everyone would be saying how he's the greatest to ever play the game. Sorry, Tiger is the only guy out there that is in the same class as the greats of Jack's day. The only one. He didn't play well for sure, but even with all that's going on around him he was still there. We're giving Tiger a pass this season and we'll see how he does next year when he hopefully gets his mojo back. We're still pretty sure he'll surpase Jack's 18 majors, but if he was playing against the same guys Jack did in his days he'd have 1/2 the majors he has now. Sorry, that's how we see it. Heck, Tom Watson at 60 something years old came within a hair of winning a major last year, and was in the mix again this year. If Tom were 30 something do you think he'd have let these guys flounder to victory like this? Jack certainly wouldn't.
Comment, Larry V. (08/17/09):
I enjoyed your thoughts and I agree. I think it should be a draw. I think Tiger and Jack are both so unique they should both hold the mantel as the greatest ever or be consider the greatest of golfers of any era.
I think there are other important nuances worth noting.
First Tiger's drive to beat Jack. There's a record out there to be had and come hell or high water Tiger has the goal, the determination and the ability to surpass it. He has an obsession that's turned into a marketing and media frenzy. And, there is no question that he'll do it. He's got the talent and lack of competition to do it. Unfortunately for Tiger, pundits will always say he doesn't have his Frazier. Some say it doesn't matter, that the today's field is deeper with physically more talented golfers. Others may say the mental aspect of today's player is not there. YE Yang is the only golfer that's demonstrated in the 13 years Tiger has played, a mental capacity to compete with Tiger and close the deal in a major. It's Tiger vs. the rest of a physically talented field but except for Yang the rest of the field has been mentally challenged with the game that goes on between the ears. It's not Tiger's fault and he shouldn't be penalized for it. He's a gifted player and without question the greatest golfer of his era.
Second, Did Jack have a burning desire to beat the all time record during his era? I don't think so. But, Jack was the first to ever come out and say he put a priority on the majors. I believe he surpassed the then major record of 11 held by Walter Hagan and I think Jack did it in his 13th season. After that accomplishment, which basically went unnoticed, Jack chased no one for the remainder of his career. Not to say he was ever chasing Hagan at all. How many times did Jack ever say, I play to beat Walter Hagan's records? Jack proceeded to win 6 more majors and place 2nd 8 more times. Would Jack have pushed a little harder, managed his game a little differently if the record he was chasing was 23? Could he have turned all of those 2nd place finishes (19) into wins if the record was even higher? Hard to say but something to consider.
When comparing Tiger and Jack we're comparing apples to oranges. Everything is different today vs. yesterday. Jack had a lot of competition by he never had a Tiger. Tiger has destroyed the competition of his era but he's never faced likes of Jack.
It's clear when you've had the unique fortune to watch both men play at their best there is obviously only 1 conclusion. It's unfair to both of them and their fans to claim one better than the other. It's impossible to determine who's the best. Both men are magnificent players and both deserve the title as best ever or the 2 Greatest Golfers of any Era. There is no reason why it can't be shared...They split titles in College Football don't they...?
Thanks for the opportunity
COMMENT GARY (10/2010)
Thank you for bringing to the table the list of incredible players of Jack’s era. I have had this discussion with my brother (a PGA pro for over 40 years). I also happen to be a huge fan of Ben Hogan, he is my all time favorite and pick for best ever.
However Hogan I think suffered from the same thing that Tiger suffers from, lack of the caliber players you called out- Palmer, Player, Casper, Trevino, Watson, Crenshaw. They were not just great players they were tough, something that seems to be missing
today in our US players. Could be the money has made them soft.
Gary form Washington state
ISAG RESPONSE: Thanks Gary. You'll never get an argument from us when you agree with us! Hogan was great, no doubt about that.
I think those that say unequivocally that Tiger is better than Jack are just as wrong as can be. I can buy the argument that he's bigger, he's got that "Eye of the Tiger" etc., just like Jack. But that makes him MAYBE in the same league as Jack, not better. I'll give Tiger this, of all the players I've seen in the last 15 years, TIger is the only one who belongs in that group mentioned above. The rest aren't even close. Thanks for writing in!
COMMENT MALCOLM (June 2011)
I think the whole process of selecting the greatest golfer by the number of majors they won is flawed. Three of the four majors are held in the USA and this gives American Golfers who grow up playing on these courses in front of home crowds a huge advantage over the international players. Gary Player won 9 majors without one being played in his own country. How many more would he have won had any of them been played in his home country? The same can be said for players like Ballesteros, Norman, Els, Langer etc.
Having said that my vote would go to Tiger at the moment as the best ever however if a kid like Rory Mcilroy wins seven or eight Majors I think he would have a strong case for being the greatest.
ISAG Response: Not a bad point about 3 of the 4 Majors being played here. However these guys play American courses so often I don't know that it's a big disadvantage at this point. It's more of a disadvantage for the American players going to play "The Open Championhip". We (American players) aren't used to the wind, hard greens, rain. etc. etc. that the Brits have there. The British Open courses call for a lot more shotmaking ability and less brute strength. I would argue that "anyone" can play when the conditions are perfect like they are here! So I see your point, but don't totally agree.
On the second point, are you seriously talking about Rory Mcilroy in the same sentence as Jack Nicklaus after ONE major? Just how does Rory winning "7 or 8" majors vault him over Jack and Tiger? You had me a little bit on the first part, the second you're a bit out there I'm afraid!
COMMENT "Juntom" (August 2011)
Tiger of course!
4 majors at one time
6 straight amateur championships
better percentage of wins
Nicklaus: 18 Majors
ISAG Response: I'm with you until you go to "better competition" under Tiger. Really? Better than Palmer, Watson, Trevino, Miller, Casper, Floyd, Crenshaw? Who is better than any of them? Mickelson? Please... Who else you got? Rory? Little early to put Rory in the same category as Sergio no less Palmer or Watson. What you're confusing for better competition is better equipment meaning lower scores. Can you imagine what Nicklaus could have done with an R-11 Driver and today's irons and 3 wedges?. The ONLY guy in the league of Nicklaus was/is Tiger. The next closest is Mickelson. But at this point I think I'd take Hale Irwin in a head to head against lefty.
Thanks for the opinion! Feel free to fire back!
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