Tiger or Jack: Who Is the Best of All Time?

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COMMENTARY | Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are two of the iconic figures in the history of golf. They are of different generations; when Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket in 1986, Woods was all of 10 years old.

Nicklaus has long been considered the greatest player in history. But has Woods surpassed him?

Comparing golfers from different eras is all but impossible because of advances in equipment technology and golf-course maintenance practices. Thus, our opinions are for entertainment purposes only.


The 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus who won the 1962 U.S. Open was one of the longest hitters the game had ever seen to that point; the epitome of raw power. As great as Nicklaus was, however, he realized his full potential only after he harnessed his power to his advantage. That approach seemed to work out reasonably well for him.

When Woods turned professional in 1996 at age 20, he too attracted immediate attention for his prowess off the tee. In the years since, his peers have caught up to him in terms of raw power, in part due the swing changes he's made, but in no small measure because of advances in equipment technology.


Nicklaus gets the nod here by reason of necessity. When he was at his peak, courses weren't as well-maintained as they are today and the equipment was less forgiving.

In today's era, players aren't as concerned about keeping the ball in the fairway off the tee. But at his peak (2000-2001), Woods was masterful at avoiding trouble. Remember, he won the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews by eight shots and didn't find a single bunker over the four days.

Short Game

This is one area where Woods has a distinct, historical advantage. Wedge and sand play were the weakest elements of Nicklaus' game (in comparison to his talents in other areas). If the two played head to head at their peaks, Tiger would have the advantage with the shorter clubs.


Like every other player, Nicklaus and Woods both had stretches when their putting prowess deserted them. Both, however, repeatedly displayed the ability to elevate their games when the situation demanded; the bigger the putt, the more likely they were to make it.

Mental Game

No one has ever managed his game better or thought his way around a golf course better than Nicklaus. Woods developed his talents in those areas soon enough, but I still think Jack would have the edge if the two hooked up head to head over 18 holes with a 1972 edition of Jack Nicklaus (at age 32) facing a 2000 version of Tiger Woods (at age 24).

As of this writing, in this time and place, I still regard Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer in history. Whether Tiger Woods will dethrone him is a question for another day.

Rick Woelfel resides near Philadelphia. He's a member of the Golf Writers Association. His own golf handicap is classified.

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