COMMENTARY | Who is the greatest golfer of all time: Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?
Now seems like a good time to reinvigorate the debate. You might be wondering, Ryan, why would you bring that up now, before the PGA Championship?
Well, for a very good reason. This week is the last major in Woods' 38th year. His birthday is Dec. 30. What better time, then, to reevaluate where the current world No. 1 stands against the Golden Bear?
It would seem like this should be a short piece. The scoreboard reads: Jack 18, Tiger 14. Game over.
I submit, however, that there's way more to consider in declaring the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) than wins. After all, even the best golfers in history lost almost 75 percent of their starts. It's impossible, then, to disregard what a player does almost three quarters of the time.
So, then, here's a more nuanced rubric to determine golf's ultimate champion.
We'll compare Tiger and Jack (or is it Jack and Tiger?) as they both stand just before through the last PGA Championship before they turned 38.
For simplicity's sake, we'll award a single point for each win, splitting the point for a tie, and add them up at the end.
Majors won: Jack Nicklaus 14, Tiger Woods 14.
Nicklaus won four majors after 1977: the '78 Open Championship, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980 and, of course, the '86 Masters.
Average margin of major victory: Tiger Woods 4.14 strokes, Jack Nicklaus 2.29 strokes.
The combined margin of three of the first four majors Tiger has won is greater than the number of strokes by which Jack won all 14 of his majors to this point in his career.
Number of 54-hole leads in a major: Tiger Woods 14 (14/15), Jack Nicklaus 10 (10/12).
Final-round comebacks to win a major: Jack Nicklaus 6, Tiger Woods 0.
Top 3 finishes in majors: Jack Nicklaus 37, Tiger Woods 24.
PGA Tour wins: Tiger Woods 79 (and counting), Jack Nicklaus 64.
PGA Tour win percentage: Tiger Woods 25.99%, Jack Nicklaus 19.39%.
Top 3 finishes in PGA Tour events: Jack Nicklaus 136, Tiger Woods 126.
PGA Tour top 3 percentage: Tiger Woods 41.45%, Jack Nicklaus 41.21%.
The Players Championship titles: Jack Nicklaus 2, Tiger Woods 2.
Jack won his last Players in 1978. The event began in 1974, meaning Nicklaus won three of the first five Players ever contested. It didn't move to TPC Sawgrass, however, until 1982.
PGA Tour money list titles: Tiger Woods 9 (likely 10 after this season), Jack Nicklaus 8.
Vardon trophies (awarded to player with lowest scoring average): Tiger Woods 8, Jack Nicklaus 0*.
*Turns out that Jack Nicklaus rarely played the then-required 80 rounds to qualify for the award. If the modern standard of 60 rounds (equal to playing the PGA Tour minimum of 15 events to remain a member), then Jack would have won eight Vardon trophies.
Career PGA Tour scoring average: Tiger Woods 69.39, Jack Nicklaus 70.29
Final count: Tiger Woods 8.5, Jack Nicklaus 4.5.
If you've made it this far and either (a) hate Tiger Woods or (b) swear loyalty to Jack Nicklaus, then you're wondering how on earth I could count major wins the same as all of these other categories. Fine.
Even if Jack gets an extra point for every major Tiger doesn't have, Woods still ties him. Obviously, the Woods advantage would fall apart the more emphasis put on winning majors.
Golf isn't that simple, and a legacy isn't that easy to define.
Jack Nicklaus finished on the medal stand in a major an incredible 45 times. That's almost twice as many as Tiger, though Jack's last stand in a major was still nearly nine years away from the end of the 1977 season.
Woods, though, has been more dominant in his major wins. He often took them in style, rarely leaving much in doubt. If Woods' major-championship approach didn't evolve into a more conservative style, he likely would have proven even more dominant than his record already suggests.
Then again, Jack has been -- far and away -- better at charging on Sunday than Tiger has in majors. Nicklaus won nearly half of his 14 majors through 1977 by coming from behind. Woods has never done that.
Jack holds the edge in the majors, but Tiger is by far the best player in PGA Tour history. He wins more often and scores better than Jack by considerable margins.
There is one ding, however, in Woods' PGA Tour win record. Of Tiger Woods' 79 PGA Tour wins, 41 have come on just six venues: eight wins at Firestone C.C., Torrey Pines and Bay Hill, with another handful at Muirfield Village and a quartet at Augusta National and Doral, respectively.
That still leaves Tiger with 38 wins at other courses -- an outstanding career that almost any golfer would take.
Of course, this is just one prism through which to view two incredible careers. But the numbers don't lie: Tiger has been better than Jack.
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
- Sports & Recreation
- Tiger Woods
- Jack Nicklaus