On the eve of Woods’ 2020 debut, as the superstar takes aim at the PGA Tour’s all-time victory record, one thing remains certain as Jack Nicklaus turns 80: The Golden Bear is the best golfer ever
Jack Nicklaus arrives at his 80th birthday Jan. 21 still clinging to the mantle as the greatest golfer ever, although many people will protest this designation by saying Tiger Woods passed the Olden Bear years ago. Woods obviously has compiled a brilliant career, augmenting his legacy with a pair of landmark victories in 2019, but it marked the first time in more than a decade that he’d gained significant ground on the climb up Mount Nicklaus.
The whole Tiger-vs.-Jack thing seemed to go dormant during Woods’ extended absences. There wasn’t much sense in arguing about it if Eldrick weren’t going to play again, let alone compete at a level comparable to his prior form. Given how that has happened – heading into a week when Nicklaus becomes an octogenarian and Woods makes his first start of 2020 at Torrey Pines – there never has been a better time to debate the identity of the finest player of all-time.
On a Hawk & Rude podcast last year, noted golf historian Martin Davis said Woods didn’t even make his top five. I thought the man was kidding at first, at least until I realized that Davis’ ultra-traditionalist sensibilities doubled as a bed of quicksand, a sinking pit from which he could not emerge. As opposed to my older daughter, who was born a couple of weeks after Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots and once informed me that the Jonas Brothers were about to become bigger than The Beatles.
Some balance, please. I’ve got Jack over Tiger by a nose, perhaps for reasons few others would bother pondering. Nicklaus’ 18-15 advantage in major titles is the obvious haymaker in any related discussion, especially when you consider that both men made it clear from the outset that collecting Grand Slam components was their top priority. They built their schedules around those four weeks. Both picked up their first big trophy in landscape-altering style: Nicklaus over Arnold Palmer (on Arnie’s home turf) at the 1962 U.S. Open; Woods by a dozen strokes at the 1997 Masters.
The only tangible difference between the two is that Nicklaus has three more. In an individual sport, major titles are a lot like league championships, which is why Michael Jordan and his six rings are the main reason why he’s commonly regarded as the best player in NBA history. Woods might have been more dominant, Nicklaus more consistent, but the fact that Tiger went majorless throughout most of the 2010s is ultimately what will keep him from catching Jack.
Speaking of 2010, does anyone remember the last time Woods won a Ryder Cup match? His 0-7-1 aggregate at the 2012 and 2018 gatherings dropped his career record to a dismal 13-21-3. Nicklaus played in six Ryder Cups and went 16-8-3, a difference that has to count for something when assessing each man’s body of work. The event’s exponential growth over the last 40 years has turned the biennial bout into an interstate weigh station for posterity. Nicklaus is the guy in the 18-wheeler; Woods is behind the wheel of a rusted-out pickup truck.
Of course, it seemed highly inconceivable that one of the most decorated match-play conquerors in the history of amateur golf, a kid who won six consecutive USGA championships in the format, could reach this stage of his career barely having won a third of his sessions vs. the Europeans. We could go on and on about how inferior the opposition was during Nicklaus’ era as a Ryder Cup participant, to which the pro-Jack faction might respond with a snicker. If you were squaring off against the Golden Bear in his heyday, you’d look awfully inferior, too.
Some might consider it a stretch to submit Nicklaus’ post-50 accomplishments as greatest-ever evidence, perhaps forgetting that he carried the Senior PGA Tour on his back during its glory days in the early- to mid-1990s. If Palmer was the primary pioneer, the man who put Geritol Ball on the map, it was his longtime friend/adversary who sold all the commercial real estate. Nicklaus won eight of the first 24 senior majors he entered. Not bad for a part-time player.
One might surmise that his mere presence in the game continues to have a broad and immeasurable impact on pro golf. Nicklaus’ heroics certainly inspired and motivated Woods. It’s fair to wonder whether Tiger would have attempted all those comebacks if not for his pursuit of Jack’s major-title record. Nicklaus’ prominence as a course designer and tournament host also factor into the equation. He is largely responsible for the inclusion of continental Europe to the old GB&I Ryder Cup squads – imagine the kingpin of the dominant side proposing changes to make the other team better. Especially in this day and age.
A decade earlier, Nicklaus played a key role in the division of the PGA, which led to separate operations for club pros and tour pros, providing a more appropriate governmental structure for the game as we know it now. He won three of the first five Players Championships, injecting a shot of instant credibility to what has become the biggest non-major on the schedule. And if he didn’t actually save the Honda Classic from extinction, Jack and his wife, Barbara, turned a nomadic, faltering afterthought into a thriving stop on the Florida Swing.
He’s done it all, and he’s done it with immense class. Jack William Nicklaus never had to work hard to improve his on-course demeanor, make himself accessible to the media or endear himself to fans. Once a cold-blooded competitive killer who was always quick with a handshake and a kind word – nobody has earned more praise from Nicklaus over the years than Woods himself – the greatest golfer who ever lived is one of the finest people ever to have played.
Like a lot of things in this fabulous game, that won’t be changing any time soon.
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