The late Frank Chirkinian hated it when anyone would try to compare Jack Nicklaus to Ben Hogan. “All comparisons,” he would bellow, referring to those that involved athletes of different generations, “are onerous."
The longtime CBS producer, hailed as the “father of televised golf,” was right, of course. But that has never stopped golf fans from debating who is the greatest of all time. And as Tiger Woods returns to major championship competition with this week’s British Open, resuming his pursuit of Nicklaus’ 18 majors, the debate is officially rekindled.
There are any number of ways to compare Woods and Nicklaus. In this case I have limited the discussion to majors and will focus on the question, “If Jack and Tiger were both in their primes, who wins?”
Neither needed a breaking-in period when it came to majors. Tiger won his first major as a pro, the 1997 Masters, at age 21, destroying the rest of the field by a record 12 shots. Jack won his second major as a pro, the 1962 U.S. Open, at age 22, beating Arnold Palmer in a playoff. So we’ll start the comparison in those years, and compare each man’s first major with the other’s first major, second to second, and so forth.
With one exception, that comparison neatly pits Masters against Masters, U.S. Open against U.S. Open, etc., for the first 17 years of each man’s career as a pro – taking Nicklaus to the end of 1978 and Woods to the end of 2013. The exception is 1971, when the PGA Championship was played in February in Florida and was that year’s first major, not its fourth. Because I’m comparing majors by the specific number they were in each man’s career, I have compared the 1971 PGA, Nicklaus’ 37th major, with the 2006 Masters, Woods’ 37th major.
After the 1971-2006 comparisons, the tournaments fall back in line until Woods’ 2008 season, when after winning the U.S. Open, he missed the British Open and PGA while recovering from injury. Obviously Woods should not be punished in this comparison for missing tournaments, so they are not counted in this quest to determine who was more dominant in his era.
At their best, both were nearly untouchable. Tiger won eight of his first 22 majors; Jack won seven of his first 22. Tiger won four majors in a row from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters, a “Tiger Slam” instead of a Grand Slam only because all four wins did not come in the same calendar year. Nicklaus, though the most consecutive majors he ever won was two, came within a Lee Trevino chip-in of holding all four major titles at the same time in 1972. Nicklaus had won the 1971 PGA, played in February as a concession to the South Florida heat, then added the 1972 Masters and U.S. Open titles. He had the claret jug in his sights at Muirfield, but he finished second by one shot to Trevino, who chipped in on the 71st hole.
In 1963, Jack became, at 23, the youngest to win the Masters. When he won a green jacket again in 1965 by nine shots over Palmer and Gary Player (the only time the Big Three would ever finish in the top three together in a major), he shaved three strokes off the scoring record of 274 set in 1953 by Hogan. Jack broke another Hogan scoring record at the 1967 U.S. Open in winning by four shots over Palmer. In the 70 majors that Jack played from the ’62 Masters to the ’79 U.S. Open, he was out of the top 10 just 16 times while winning 15.
When Tiger won the 1997 Masters his score of 270 broke by one shot the record that Jack had set in his 1965 rout. Tiger's 15-shot win in the 2000 U.S. Open set a record for widest margin of victory, but his score of 272 only tied the record (since bettered by Rory Mcilroy) that Jack set in the 1980 U.S. Open. When Tiger was 24 he completed the career Grand Slam at the 2000 Open Championship, two years ahead of the age that Jack was when he completed the feat in 1966, also at the Open Championship. Of the 64 majors Tiger has played as a professional, he¹s finished outside of the top 10 some 26 times while winning 14.
Because of injury Tiger has missed six majors spanning from the 1997 Masters to the 2014 U.S. Open, which means Tiger and Jack would've gone “head to head” 64 times in the game's four biggest championships. Jack finished higher 38 times to Tiger's 22, with the two greats tying four times. At his best Tiger might have the slightest edge over Jack in the majors during this time period, but the majority of the time even these two weren't at their best and in that case Jack was easily the winner.
It must be noted that this comparison involves only majors; if you expand it to include regular Tour events Tiger wins easily. He has a career winning percentage of 25 percent; Jack's winning percentage through the end of 1979 was 18 percent. Clearly when it comes to the week-to-week grind of the Tour, Tiger has no equal. I dare say that his winning percentage is the most untouchable of all of his accomplishments.
It’s tricky comparing athletes from different generations. Even in a sports such as sprinting, where numbers on a stopwatch tell what appears to be a cut-and-dried story, there’s more than meets the eye.
For instance, Usain Bolt is faster than Carl Lewis was and Carl Lewis was faster than Jesse Owens. But the circumstances of a time and generation do not provide a level playing field. Jesse Owens faced more hurdles than the 3 ½-foot-tall barriers on a track. He also had to deal with bigotry, segregation and poverty. When he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin he single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. The fact that over his career he didn't win as many medals as Carl Lewis does nothing to convince me that Carl was better.
Usain Bolt made me look harder at the careers of Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens. While one can point to improvements in technique for the evolution of speed, one can also point to lighter, improved shoes, more aerodynamic clothes and better track conditions, to say nothing of the improvements in nutrition and the effect that has had on the size of athletes. Jesse Owens was 5-10, Carl Lewis is 6-2 and Usain Bolt is 6-5.
But back to golf. The answer to the question, “Who is the greatest of all time?” is “It depends.” In the majors, Jack wins. In the majors with a cutoff of the 2008 U.S. Open, after which Woods began missing tournaments because of injury, It’s dead even. In a particular major where they are both playing their best, Tiger wins in a playoff. At a Farmers Insurance Open or Andy Williams Classic as it was called decades ago or any other regular Tour event, Tiger would've beaten Jack like Jack beat Arnold.
The Golden Bear would have an encore in the ’80s, winning three more majors to bring his total to 18, a number as well known to golf enthusiasts as the batting average of .406 is to baseball lovers. Tiger is still a man at work. He may yet silence all critics (myself included) who rank him a slim tissue thickness behind Jack with the work he does over the next decade. If he does, it would be to the sport’s utter delight.
Here's a chart of their majors as professionals, in order and head-to-head:
|No.||Jack's majors||Result||Tiger's majors||Result||Better||Tally|
|1||1962 Masters||T-15||1997 Masters||Won||Woods||1-0, Woods|
|2||1962 U.S. Open||Won||1997 U.S. Open||T-19||Nicklaus||1-1|
|3||1962 British||T-34||1997 British||T-24||Woods||2-1, Woods|
|4||1962 PGA||T-3||1997 PGA||T-29||Nicklaus||2-2|
|5||1963 Masters||Won (2)||1998 Masters||T-8||Nicklaus||3-2, Nicklaus|
|6||1963 U.S. Open||MC||1998 U.S. Open||T-18||Woods||3-3|
|7||1963 British||3rd||1998 British||3rd||Tie||3-3-1|
|8||1963 PGA||Won (3)||1998 PGA||T-10||Nicklaus||4-3-1, Nicklaus|
|9||1964 Masters||T-2||1999 Masters||T-18||Nicklaus||5-3-1, Nicklaus|
|10||1964 U.S. Open||T-23||1999 U.S. Open||T-3||Woods||5-4-1, Nicklaus|
|11||1964 British||2nd||1999 British||T-7||Nicklaus||6-4-1, Nicklaus|
|12||1964 PGA||T-2||1999 PGA||Won (2)||Woods||6-5-1, Nicklaus|
|13||1965 Masters||Won (4)||2000 Masters||5th||Nicklaus||7-5-1, Nicklaus|
|14||1965 U.S. Open||T-31||2000 U.S. Open||Won (3)||Woods||7-6-1, Nicklaus|
|15||1965 British||T-12||2000 British||Won (4)||Woods||7-7-1|
|16||1965 PGA||T-2||2000 PGA||Won (5)||Woods||8-7-1, Woods|
|17||1966 Masters||Won (5)||2001 Masters||Won (6)||Tie||8-7-2, Woods|
|18||1966 U.S. Open||3rd||2001 U.S. Open||T-12||Nicklaus||8-8-2|
|19||1966 British||Won (6)||2001 British||T-25||Nicklaus||9-8-2, Nicklaus|
|20||1966 PGA||T-22||2001 PGA||T-29||Nicklaus||10-8-2, Nicklaus|
|21||1967 Masters||MC||2002 Masters||Won (7)||Woods||10-9-2, Nicklaus|
|22||1967 U.S. Open||Won (7)||2002 U.S. Open||Won (8)||Tie||10-9-3, Nicklaus|
|23||1967 British||2nd||2002 British||T-28||Nicklaus||11-9-3, Nicklaus|
|24||1967 PGA||T-3||2002 PGA||2nd||Woods||11-10-3, Nicklaus|
|25||1968 Masters||T-5||2003 Masters||T-15||Nicklaus||12-10-3, Nicklaus|
|26||1968 U.S. Open||2nd||2003 U.S. Open||T-20||Nicklaus||13-10-3, Nicklaus|
|27||1968 British||T-2||2003 British||T-4||Nicklaus||14-10-3, Nicklaus|
|28||1968 PGA||MC||2003 PGA||T-39||Woods||14-11-3, Nicklaus|
|29||1969 Masters||T-24||2004 Masters||T-22||Woods||14-12-3, Nicklaus|
|30||1969 U.S. Open||T-25||2004 U.S. Open||T-17||Woods||14-13-3, Nicklaus|
|31||1969 British||T-6||2004 British||T-9||Nicklaus||15-13-3, Nicklaus|
|32||1969 PGA||T-11||2004 PGA||T-24||Nicklaus||16-13-3, Nicklaus|
|33||1970 Masters||8th||2005 Masters||Won (9)||Woods||16-14-3, Nicklaus|
|34||1970 U.S. Open||T-49||2005 U.S. Open||2nd||Woods||16-15-3, Nicklaus|
|35||1970 British||Won (8)||2005 British||Won (10)||Tie||16-15-4, Nicklaus|
|36||1970 PGA||T-6||2005 PGA||T-4||Woods||16-16-4|
|37||1971 PGA||Won (9)||2006 Masters||T-3||Nicklaus||17-16-4, Nicklaus|
|38||1971 Masters||T-2||2006 U.S. Open||MC||Nicklaus||18-16-4, Nicklaus|
|39||1971 U.S. Open||2nd||2006 British||Won (11)||Woods||18-17-4, Nicklaus|
|40||1971 British||T-5||2006 PGA||Won (12)||Woods||18-18-4|
|41||1972 Masters||Won (10)||2007 Masters||T-2||Nicklaus||19-18-4, Nicklaus|
|42||1972 U.S. Open||Won (11)||2007 U.S. Open||T-2||Nicklaus||20-18-4, Nicklaus|
|43||1972 British||2nd||2007 British||T-12||Nicklaus||21-18-4, Nicklaus|
|44||1972 PGA||T-13||2007 PGA||Won (13)||Woods||21-19-4, Nicklaus|
|45||1973 Masters||T-3||2008 Masters||2nd||Woods||21-20-4, Nicklaus|
|46||1973 U.S. Open||T-4||2008 U.S. Open||Won (14)||Woods||21-21-4|
|47||1973 British||4th||2009 Masters||T-6||Nicklaus||22-21-4, Nicklaus|
|48||1974 PGA||Won (12)||2009 U.S. Open||T-6||Nicklaus||23-21-4, Nicklaus|
|49||1974 Masters||T-4||209 British||MC||Nicklaus||24-21-4, Nicklaus|
|50||1974 U.S. Open||T-10||2009 PGA||2nd||Woods||24-22-4, Nicklaus|
|51||1974 British||3rd||2010 Masters||T-4||Nicklaus||25-22-4, Nicklaus|
|52||1974 PGA||2nd||2010 U.S. Open||T-4||Nicklaus||26-22-4, Nicklaus|
|53||1975 Masters||Won (13)||2010 British||T-23||Nicklaus||27-22-4, Nicklaus|
|54||1975 U.S. Open||T-7||2010 PGA||T-28||Nicklaus||28-22-4, Nicklaus|
|55||1975 British||T-3||2011 Masters||T-4||Nicklaus||29-22-4, Nicklaus|
|56||1975 PGA||Won (14)||2011 PGA||MC||Nicklaus||30-22-4, Nicklaus|
|57||1976 Masters||T-3||2012 Masters||T-40||Nicklaus||31-22-4, Nicklaus|
|58||1976 U.S. Open||T-11||2012 U.S. Open||T-21||Nicklaus||32-22-4, Nicklaus|
|59||1976 British||T-2||2012 British||T-3||Nicklaus||33-22-4, Nicklaus|
|60||1976 PGA||T-4||2012 PGA||T-11||Nicklaus||34-22-4, Nicklaus|
|61||1977 Masters||2nd||2013 Masters||T-4||Nicklaus||35-22-4, Nicklaus|
|62||1977 U.S. Open||T-10||2013 U.S. Open||T-32||Nicklaus||36-22-4, Nicklaus|
|63||1977 British||2nd||2013 British||T-6||Nicklaus||37-22-4, Nicklaus|
|64||1977 PGA||3rd||2013 PGA||T-40||Nicklaus||38-22-4, Nicklaus|