COMMENTARY | We're just days away from the Masters and the resumption of Tiger Woods' historic chase of Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships.
As I wrote earlier this week, Tiger looks primed to capture his first green jacket since 2005. A win would reignite the greatest ever debate, so let's take a look at where they stand today.
Nicklaus played against better competition
Don't get me wrong, there is much more overall talent in the global game today and Tiger has mostly owned that competition. But the Golden Bear won his majors in classic duels with a higher quality group of peers spanning two generations: Gary Player (nine majors), Arnold Palmer (seven) and Lee Trevino (six) in the 1960s and early 1970s, and then Tom Watson (eight majors) in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Other than a rare Sunday showdown with Phil Mickelson at Bethpage Black at the 2002 U.S. Open, Tiger out-dueled the likes of Bob May and Chris DiMarco in his few major victories that were close. It's not Tiger's fault that he peaked with Greg Norman and Nick Faldo on the downside of their careers and with David Duval burning out too soon, but he didn't have to beat the same caliber of players as Nicklaus did.
Tiger has been more dominant
Nicklaus took 25 seasons to accrue 73 PGA Tour victories. Tiger passed Jack last year in his 16th full season and with 77 wins; he's closing on Sam Snead's all-time record of 82. At his current pace, Tiger will post more than 100 victories.
And Woods has been without peer from the moment he turned pro. He took down veteran Davis Love III in a playoff to claim his first PGA Tour victory in 1996 and has never looked back. He won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 strokes and the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes. That second win ushered in the Tiger Slam, where he won four straight majors over the course of two calendar years.
Nicklaus could win from behind
Probably the most famous comeback in the modern game was Jack's final-round 65 to win the 1986 Masters. The Golden Bear lit up the back nine at Augusta National to fell a veritable who's who of the game, including Norman, Tom Kite and Seve Ballesteros. That win came 11 years after he came from two shots behind at Augusta to vanquish Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller.
Nicklaus won seven of his 18 majors coming from behind, which for golf fans creates more drama and entertainment than seeing Tiger suffocate the field. Even in his losses, especially against Watson at Turnberry in 1977 and Pebble Beach in 1982, Jack made things memorable.
Tiger has done more for the game
This one could go either way as Nicklaus, between his course design work, Ryder Cup and President's Cup captaincy, hosting the Memorial Tournament, and all the charity work he has done in Ohio and Florida, has been a wonderful asset to golf.
But Tiger has changed the demographics of the sport. He made golf cool, caused prize money to balloon, and has attracted the largest galleries ever to watch the game. The First Tee, which he was instrumental in creating, has transformed the lives of thousands of kids through golf. He also attaches his name and charitable giving might to two tournaments annually: the AT&T National and the Chevron World Challenge.
Nicklaus has better kept golf in perspective
Tiger's single-minded pursuit of winning is not entirely his fault; he was trained from an early age by father Earl Woods to be the terminator of golf. I've rarely, if ever, heard Tiger say he plays golf because it's fun. That attitude has rubbed some in the game the wrong way.
At the end of the day, golf is still just a game. The sport was vitally important to Nicklaus; it was his livelihood that supported a family. But he never let it get in the way of that family. In fact, he's expanded his social circle through the game, having grown close to Palmer, Miller, Player and Watson.
I believe Nicklaus possessed more natural talent than Tiger, but that Woods maintains a more powerful on-course aura. Jack stepped up in the heat of battle while Tiger has been more consistently excellent. It's a near dead heat, but, for now, I've got to go with the Golden Bear.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the New York Post, FoxSports.com, Greensboro News & Record, and Burlington (N.C.) Times-News. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.
- Sports & Recreation
- Tiger Woods
- Jack Nicklaus