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Comparing Two Golf Greats….

The PGA is hoping to return to action in June without fans, and with the snow finally melting in Alberta many of you are hoping you will be able to relief some stress (or possibly add more depending how your game goes), and hit the links soon. Currently, the Alberta government has deemed golf a non-essential activity, but with some courses open in Kelowna, there is a precedent that you can play golf and still honour social distancing.

So with that in mind, let’s dive into a golf article today.

It can be more difficult comparing players on team sports, especially if you go by championships, because great teams win, not just great individuals. I think individual sports are easier when it comes to comparing the greats from different generations because they had to win their championships on their own.

Let’s look at one of the more hotly contested debates of who was better: Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.

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Clearly both have had unreal careers. They dominated their respective eras. I think without question they are the top-two golfers of all time.

Golf has always viewed the Majors as their Championships. Those four tournaments usually have the best players playing, whereas weekly tournaments are often void of some of the top players. Winning Majors has always been the gold standard in golf, and these two are the best.

Nicklaus has won 18 Majors while Woods has 15.

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Woods has won 82 tournaments overall, tied with Sam Snead for most all-time, while Nicklaus is third at 73. The interesting thing about tournament wins very few people said Snead was the best because he had the most tournament wins. It was always Nicklaus, due to his 18 majors, not to mention all of his top-five finishes in Majors.

So who was more dominant? Nicklaus or Woods?

Here is Woods’ record at Majors starting in 1997 when he won his first.

In those 14 years he won 14 majors. He was second six times, third three times, fourth four times and fifth once. He finished top-five 28 times. And he had five other top-10 finishes.

Here is Nicklaus’ record at Majors starting in 1962, the first year he won and his second year as a professional.

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He also won 14 majors. Eleven times he was second, was third six times, fourth three times and fifth twice. He finished top-five 36 times. And he had five other top-10 finishes.

This debunks the myth that Tiger dominated his era more than Jack. Both won 14 times in 14 years. Incredible for both.

In their careers at Majors Nicklaus has a big advantage in top-five finishes:

First place: 18 times.
2nd place: 19 times.
3rd place: 9 times.
4th place: 8 times.
5th place: 2 times.

A total of 56 top-five finishes at Majors including 37 top-two.

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Here is how often Woods finished top-five.
1st place: 15 times.
2nd place: 7 times.
3rd place: 4 times.
4th place: 6 times.
5th place: 1 time.

He had a total of 33 top-five finishes with 22 being top-two.

What is interesting is seeing who else won during these years.

From 1997 to 2010, here is the list of who won the other Majors

Tiger won 14.
Four: Phil Mickelson.
Three: Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh.
Two: Ernie Els (won one in 1994 and 2012 also), Mark O’Meara, Angel Cabrera and Retief Goosen.
One: Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Paul Lawrie, David Duval, David Toms, Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Yang Yong-eun, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen.

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These players also won once during this span, but won another major prior to 1997 or after 2010.
Payne Stewart (two prior) while Lee Janzen and Jose Maria Olazabal (one prior) and Zack Johnson and Martin Kaymer (one after).

So 24 players won once and eight players, including Woods, won multiple times during Woods’ dominant 14 years.

NICKLAUS YEARS…

Here are the other winners during 1962-1975.

Nicklaus won 14.
Six: Gary Player (won two prior to 1962 and one after 1975).
Five: Lee Trevino (won one after).
Three: Arnold Palmer (won four prior),
Two: Julius Boros (won one prior), Billy Casper (won one prior) and Tony Jacklin.

One: Bob Charles, Ken Venturi, Tony Lema, Bobby Nichols, Dave Marr, Al Gieberger, Gay Brewer, Roberto DeVicenzo, Don January, Bob Goalby, George Archer, Orville Moody, Charles Coody, Tommy Aaron, Tom Weiskopf and Lou Graham.

And these golfers each one once during this span, but also won prior to 1962 or after 1975: Tom Watson (won seven after 1975), Peter Thomson ( four prior to 1962), Raymond Floyd (three after 1975), Hale Irwin (two after), Dave Stockton (one after) and Johnny Miller (one after).

So 22 players won once and seven players, including Nicklaus, won multiple Majors during his dominant 14-year run.

I’ve often read that Woods played tougher competition in his era, but I suspect much of those comments were said/written without looking at how many golfers won during Nicklaus’ run. We will look at that later.

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PGA VICTORIES…

Snead and Woods lead with 82 each while Nicklaus is third with 73.

Snead won his tournaments between 1936-1965. He won his last PGA tournament when he was 53.
Woods has won between 1996-2019. His most recent victory (2019 Zozo Championship) occurred at age 43.
Nicklaus won between 1962-1986. His first win was the 1962 US Open and his last was the 1986 Masters at age 46.

Here is a list of the top-25 in PGA Victories. Major Victories are the first set of parenthesis and the years between their first and last PGA victory are the second set.**

4. Ben Hogan 64 wins (9 Majors) (1938-1959).
5. Arnold Palmer 62 wins (7) (1955-1973).
6. Byron Nelson 52 victories (5) (1935-1951).
7. Billy Casper 51 wins (3) (1956-1975).
8. Walter Hagen 45 wins (11) (1914-1936).
9. Phil Mickelson 44 victories (5) (1991-2019).
10. Cary Middlecoff 40 wins (3) (1945-1961).
11. Tom Watson 39 wins (8) (1974-1998).
12. Gene Sarasen 38 wins (7) (1922-1941).
13. Lloyd Mangrum 36 wins (1) 1940-1956).
14. Vijay Singh 34 wins (3) (1993-2008).
15. Jimmy Demaret 31 wins (3) (1938-1957).
16. Horton Smith 30 wins (2) (1928-1941).
17. Harry Cooper 29 wins (0) (1923-1939).
18. Gene Littler 29 wins (1) (1954-1977).
19. Lee Trevino 29 wins (6) (1968-1984).
20. Leo Diegel 28 wins (2) (1920-1934).
21. Paul Runyan 28 wins (2) (1930-1941).
22. Henry Picard 26 wins (2) (1932-1945).
23. Tommy Armour 25 wins (3) (1920-1938).
24. Johnny Miller 25 wins (2) (1971-1994).
25. Gary Player 24 wins (9) (1958-1978).

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Nicklaus played against Palmer, Casper, Watson, Littler, Trevino, Miller and Player.
Woods battled Mickelson and Singh.

The next highest active golfers in PGA victories:

Davis Love III 21 wins (1) (1987-2015).
Dustin Johnson 20 wins (1) (2008-2019).
Ernie Els 19 wins (4) (1994-2012).
Rory Mcllory 18 wins (4) (2010-2019).
Jim Furyk 17 wins (1) (1995-2015).
Adam Scott 14 wins (1) (2003-2020).

Do you think one player faced tougher competition?

GROWING THE GAME

Woods has the advantage in this regard, but he also was in an era where there was more media and the ability to grow the game. The Golf Channel, TV rights, the Internet and now social media combined with his great talent helped golf explode. TV loved having him in the hunt on Saturday and Sundays and many people watched golf because of Tiger. No question about that.

If there was wide spread cable TV, the Internet and social media when Jack played would he have had the same impact? Impossible to say, but considering the casual golf fan tunes in on Sunday when the best player is in the hunt, then you wonder how big the TV numbers might have been for Nicklaus.

Between 1962-1981 Nicklaus finished in the top-six (final three pairings) 56 times during Major tournaments. And 49 times he was in the top-four. That is a TV golf director’s dream.

I can’t say Nicklaus would have had the same impact as Woods in this regard, because it is impossible to know. The media landscape and ability for fans to watch and follow the game was different.

Woods grew the game more. I don’t think we can debate that, but that doesn’t mean he was a better golfer. It is a different conversation.

WHO WAS BETTER?

It will vary from person to person. Many who didn’t see Nicklaus play in his prime might find it difficult to believe someone was better than Woods, while those who watched Nicklaus will disagree.

You likely won’t change someone’s opinion on who was better. And we don’t have to. A good sports debate is always fun.

The one thing I learned researching these stats is that both Jack and Tiger dominated their eras, but I see no proof that Woods played in a more difficult era. I’d probably argue after digging in that Nicklaus might have faced more elite players who won more majors. I didn’t know much about Billy Casper prior to this, but after researching him and reading stories about him he was a heck of a player.

I was also stunned to learn Player only won 25 tournaments, but nine were Majors and many have him among the greatest golfers to ever play. So does overall PGA wins matter as much as Majors? It would seem golf history suggests no based on how Player is viewed compared to Casper, who has 51 PGA wins.

Who do you think has had a better career? Woods or Nicklaus?

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR