Skip to main content

Whos No 1 Debate is Senseless

Its as much a certainty as summer following spring and peaches following cream. If you ever get involved in a discussion of whom is the best golfer of all time, you better get ready for a long, long challenge.
OK, was Old Tom Morris better than Walter Hagen? Was Hagen better than Bobby Jones; Jones better than Sam Snead or Byron Nelson? Was Nelson better than Ben Hogan; Hogan better than Jack Nicklaus? And, was Nicklaus better than Tiger Woods?
Tiger Woods
Is Tiger Woods the greatest player of all time? Who knows?
The truth? I dont honestly know, and neither can you. Thats because they dont play the same game. Golf? Whats that? Its a game played with some kind of a stick and some kind of a ball. But ' the sticks and the balls are vastly different. Its as different as, say, a baseball bat is from a pool cue.
Most people today have it narrowed to two people ' Nicklaus and Woods. Hogan has his supporters, Jones has his, both are backed with very logical arguments. But the consensus is - Nicklaus or Woods? And if youre asking Nicklaus, forget it. He isnt about to get caught up in the comparison game ' not when the game of golf bears so little resemblance between the years he played and the current era when Tiger is playing.
You know, it just very difficult to compare the game today with the game that I played and guys who played in the generation prior to this, simply because of today, the game is 90 percent power, says Jack.
Can you really say that if played today, when equipment, golf courses and agronomy are so vastly different, that Jones wouldnt have figured out how to use the modern clubs? Do you think for a moment that Hogan wouldnt have learned how to knock down the pins on a 7,400-yard course, the same as he did when he was playing a 6,500-yard course?
Nicklaus doesnt even try to compare them. The power game was a power game back when he teed it up, only 30 years ago. But the power game of then is light years away from the power game of today.
I haven't figured that out, he says. Because there's such a great difference between the long hitter and the average hitter today that it just doesn't make a lot of sense anymore.
So to try to compare the game of today versus the game that I played - I mean, I was the longest when we played and everybody said, Gee, Jack hits it so far. But I hit it so far - I hit it 10 or 15 yards, maybe 20 yards, really, by the next guy.
And the difference today?
The difference today may be 100 yards between a good player, a long hitter and a short hitter. It's such a great difference, it's just so difficult to compare.
Without question, one of these men would be the best. Which one? I believe Tiger would be, but my selection is based on a very foolish reason ' he is the player that I have followed most closely in his career. I was still immersed in football and baseball stats early in Jacks career. The rest, I have no ' or very little ' knowledge of personally.
Ive read of their prowess, obviously. I have books on Jones and his Grand Slam, on Hagen and Old Tom. I have read hundreds of magazine and book articles on Hogan and Snead. But I cant say which one of these gents is the best.
I dont believe any man can. Comparisons are ridiculous, especially when they didnt even remotely play the same game. We compare records, but are the records of the same items? A missed cut is not the same when Nelson was playing as it is now when Woods is playing. In some ways Nelson had it easier, in some ways Woods has it easier. But the record now belongs to Tiger, and I have no beef with that ' as long as you realize that it is totally different in the context of what you are comparing.
Scoring average? It could depend on the player ' its awfully difficult to go against Woods on this one. But then look at the players of Nelsons era and the conditions they played under - on courses where greens played like fairways do today. Then again, they were much shorter. But then, comes the retort, so were the clubs and golf balls. See what I mean?
Nicklaus takes it a step further ' he says you cant compare the players of 2006 with the players of, say, 2000. You cant compare Greg Normans records with Phil Mickelsons.

The game in the last ten years has changed dramatically, Jack says simply.
Unfortunately, the same cant be said of me and about a million other golf nuts. We will continue this argument, regardless of whether they are playing with banjos or they are hitting super-long space-age technology drivers. The equipment has undergone a quantum change. We numbskulls havent.
Email your thoughts to George White