Who really cares about politics when there’s a good sports debate to engage us? After last weekend’s U.S. Open finale, with Tiger Woods’ monumental blow-up, it’s time to ask the all-important question: Tiger or Jack? By age 36, halfway to 37, whose career looks better?
Answer: Nicklaus, by nearly a country mile.
To understand the answer, let’s first understand the question. There can be no doubt that nobody since Bobby Jones, Nicklaus included, was quite so dominant a winner through age 32 — more titles, and by oft-larger margins — than Tiger Woods. But even in his first dozen years against world-class competition, Woods’ edge over Nicklaus in majors, total professional victories, and number of majors won by record margins was only slight. Those few extra wins, though, obscured the growing evidence that Woods’ overall legacy of excellence was starting to fall behind that of Nicklaus, even before Woods’ infamous midnight car crash at the end of 2009 (and subsequent unraveling).
The last 30 months have provided more perspective on where Woods’ career, astonishingly good as it is, still falls short of Nicklaus’ at the same age.
Here are the raw numbers now, at age 36 ½:
Total U.S. professional victories: Woods 73, Nicklaus 60. Significant overseas non-major victories: Woods 12, Nicklaus 12. Professional major victories: both at 14. So far, give just a slight edge to Woods.
But now consider consistency of performance in major tournaments, which is where the real difference shows. By this age, Nicklaus had finished in the top 10 in majors 47 times, Woods just 35. Nicklaus had seven third-place finishes in majors, Woods just 3. Nicklaus had 12 second-place major performances, Woods just six. And even in the quality of those high finishes (in other words, how many times each was either in a playoff or within a single shot), Nicklaus did better: Five times he was within a single stroke, while Woods finished a stroke behind only twice.
In short, Nicklaus was a far more constant presence at the top of the leader boards in major tournaments, a greater threat to win every time he teed it up, than Woods has been. Nicklaus kept his game at top level when it really counted far more consistently; Woods was far more feast or famine. (Nicklaus also by this age had two Players Championship trophies, in just three years of the event’s existence, compared to Woods’ single Players title in sixteen years on tour.)
And, as I have argued here before, Nicklaus’ highest-level competition was far more impressive than that of Woods. Nicklaus entered the fray in 1962 with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Billy Casper all already established in their primes. Woods entered in 1997 with Greg Norman and Nick Faldo both fading extremely fast (no more major wins for either of them); and with Ernie Els and Vijay Singh (significantly poor substitutes for Palmer and Player) and Phil Mickelson (despite his prominence, not really more accomplished than Casper, and — unlike Casper — without a major to his credit before Woods emerged) as the only players even near all-time great status. By 36, Nicklaus faced almost-exact contemporaries Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd (and Tom Weiskopf, for that matter, one level below) as serious challengers who rank among the greats, plus Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, and Hubert Green all having already established themselves as highly significant younger forces who were within eight years of Nicklaus’ age, and Tom Watson — at ten years younger — already with a major title under his belt. (Also in the Watson age cohort were Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite.) Woods, for his part, still faces not a single near-exact-contemporary with even near-great status, and nobody within eight years younger than him who seems likely ever to reach even Kite-like accomplishments. (Perhaps Dustin Johnson, nearly nine years younger, will rival Kite before he’s done.) And within ten years of Tiger’s age on either side, only Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington are competitors of the stature of Lanny Wadkins, Doug Sanders, Larry Nelson, or even Dave Stockton, much less Gene Littler.
So Nicklaus more consistently performed at the top of his game, against tougher top-tier competition. He did it despite using equipment far less advanced and far less forgiving of errors. (He also hit his drives consistently straighter than Woods usually has — Woods’ improvement this season notwithstanding — even while remaining the among the game’s ten longest drivers several years into his 40s, which is a superiority Woods gave up to his contemporaries several years ago.) He did it while giving back far more to the game and to the fans (even though, unlike with Tiger, it took Nicklaus’ fans nearly a decade to embrace him), establishing a record of sportsmanship and graciousness that Woods hasn’t come close to matching.
Okay, okay, you say — but what about Woods’ more concentrated dominance than Nicklaus when Woods was at the top of his game? Well, it really wasn’t much better at all.
Consider Woods’ best four-year period, from 1999 through the PGA of 2002. We’ll compare it to Nicklaus four-year stretch beginning right after Jack’s father died in 1970 — in other words, from the British Open of 1970s through the U.S. Open of 1974. During those comparable 16-major-tourney stretches, Woods earned seven victories, Jack five. But Jack had three seconds, one third, two fourths, and a fifth; Tiger had just one second, one third, no fourths, and one fifth. Jack was in the top ten 15 of 16 times, with only a tie for 13th marring the string. Woods was in the top ten only 11 of 16 times, with a 25th, a 28th, and a 29th marring the picture.
But Nicklaus wasn’t finished. In the majors immediately after that 16-tourney stretch, he finished in the top 10 an astonishing 16 of the next 17 (he tied for 11th in the 1976 U.S. Open), with three more victories, four runner-up finishes, and four third places. In short, he finished in the top thirteen finishers in major tournaments a mind-boggling 33 consecutive times, all while in his 30s! Woods finished in the top 10 “only” 10 of the next 17 majors, with three missed cut and three other times outside the top twenty. Put another way, even in Woods’ best eight-year period, he failed to finish in the top ten (or even top 11) 11 times — and all before his serious injuries began. (Nicklaus missed the top 10 in majors just nine times in 13 years, all after age 30!)
Even during their best eight-year stretches, then, Nicklaus’ sustained excellence outstripped that of Woods. (And, after breaking his string with a missed cut at age 38 — two years older than Woods is now — in the 1978 PGA, Nicklaus still ran off another string of major performances as follows: 4, T9, T2, T65, T33, 1, T4, 1, T2, T6, T23, T4, T15, 2. In other words, two more wins, two seconds, and three fourths — and with the famous Masters victory in 1986 still four years ahead.) And when Woods did win during those eight years, he was often defeating the likes of runners-up Bob May, Chris DiMarco (twice) and Shaun Micheel, while Nicklaus’ runners-up in all eight of his victories during those eight years either were Hall of Famers or near-Hall players like Bruce Crampton (14 career PGA wins), Tom Weiskopf (16 wins) and Doug Sanders (20 wins).
The point is not to belittle Woods’ phenomenal record. The point is that Nicklaus left “phenomenal” behind and, in terms of sustained excellence, reached near the realm of the “otherworldly.”
None of which is to say that Woods will fail to catch Nicklaus’ famous record of 18 professional major titles. He has ten more years to win four more majors to tie Nicklaus (at the same age Nicklaus won his 18th) — far from an impossible task for somebody of Woods’ talents. It is to say that Woods’ career so far is less impressive than Nicklaus’ was at the same stage of life.
With apologies to William Blake, a Tiger might burn bright, but a (Golden) Bear swallows lots more food — and it hunts, and lives, significantly longer.