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All-time shootout: Jack vs. Tiger

By Brady Kannon  () 

With the calendar having flipped to April, we would normally be peaking in our pre-Masters Tournament frenzy. But of course that is not the case in 2020. So what better way to relive some of that springtime tradition than with a look at the two best Masters players in history, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods?

 

The two have combined for 11 green jackets — six for Nicklaus, five for Woods. Arnold Palmer is the only other golfer to win as many as four. Five others have won three. Woods won the 2019 Masters at 43. Nicklaus won his last Masters and final major championship at Augusta National in 1986 when he was 46.

 

Woods is No. 11 in the Official World Golf Rankings. But despite a Masters win last season, the signs of decline have been evident since his latest return to competitive golf in 2018. Before the PGA Tour canceled or postponed all events leading up to the PGA Championship in mid-May, Woods had not committed to play in any of them, as he is once again nursing an injury.

 

Westgate SuperBook golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman has posted the following proposition bet at his shop, making it the favorite that Woods will never win another major. Nicklaus has 18 major victories; Woods has 15.

 

15.5: Over + 125 / Under -145

16.5: Over + 250 / Under -310

17.5: Over + 500 / Under -700

18.5: Over + 1000 / Under -2000

 

Woods has time to win another major, and some people think he can win more than one. He has time to earn another victory and break the tie with Sam Snead at 82 career wins. But the window is closing on Woods and his PGA Tour career. Who knows how long it will be before he calls it a day, but we are close enough to compare the two legends and ask: Who is the greatest golfer of all time?

 

The crew of “Long Shots” brings you Tiger vs. Jack, and we have selected a 12-person “jury” to deliver the verdict.

 

Wes Reynolds, VSiN golf writer, co-host of “The Green Zone” “Long Shots” — Jack Nicklaus

— Health. Nicklaus participated in every major from 1962-97.

— He changed the way the game was played, as he was the first player to chart and document yardage on a consistent basis.

— Aside from the most major wins, Nicklaus had at least one major top-10 finish for 24 straight years (1960-83).

— Nicklaus had 15 straight top-6 or better finishes at the British Open (1966-80) and 10 straight top-8 or better finishes at the Masters (1970-79).

 

Matt Youmans, VSiN senior editor, host of “The Edge” — Jack Nicklaus

— Nicklaus played in 164 majors and posted a record 19 runner-up finishes. He had 56 top-5 finishes in major championships, so 34% of the time he finished in the top five.

— These two facts qualify as a sort of tiebreaker: Nicklaus held sole possession of the lead after 54 holes of a major on eight occasions and won each in regulation. In the 2009 PGA, Woods led after 54 and finished three strokes behind Y.E Yang.

— Woods went more than a decade without a major title. He squandered many of his prime years and, in my opinion, his chance to stake his claim to No. 1 all time. Injuries and personal problems were issues for Woods, who is playing in an era when golf equipment and sports medicine are far superior to Nicklaus’ era.

 

JT The Brick, national sports talk radio host — Jack Nicklaus

— Woods is the most dominant golfer of all time.

— He will pass Nicklaus and eventually win the most majors. His 10-year drought is hard to comprehend, but his ability to dominate the field in his time was even more impressive than Nicklaus’.

— Nicklaus should have won 23 to 25 majors, as he was a runner-up 19 times. His ability to drive the ball in play and make clutch putts on Sunday make him the sport’s ultimate winner.

— Nicklaus is my current vote as the greatest, but I believe Woods will catch his majors-won record.

 

Justin Ray, head of content for the 15th Club — Tie

— The most prolific player in major championship history is Nicklaus. In addition to having the most victories, he has 56 top-five finishes in majors. That’s 23 more than Woods, who is second best on the list.

— Nicklaus’ 56 top-five finishes in majors are more than twice as many as all but three players in history.

— No player was more dominant over a single period than Woods. From 1997 through 2008, he was a combined 126 under par in majors. During that span, among players with 50 or more rounds played, Phil Mickelson was second best … at 98 over par, (???) 224 shots behind Woods.

— Woods reached 10 major wins before he turned 30. Just winning 10 PGA Tour events before turning 30 is a rare feat. Two majors since 1900 have been won by double digits; Woods has both.

— For me, the question is one of perception. The most accomplished player is Nicklaus; the most dominant player is Woods.

 

Joe Peta, author of “A 2019 Masters Preview” and “A 2020 Masters Preview” — Undecided

— My problem is that while we have some great data on Woods’ dominance, it just doesn’t exist to determine the level of competition Nicklaus really faced. And because I always fall back on data and skill, I just can’t make a ranking.

— I will say from a statistics trivia standpoint, Nicklaus’ combined wins and runner-up finishes in major championships is my favorite Joe DiMaggio-like “will never be broken” stat.

— I can’t do the work I’d really like to and make a firm judgment without the Strokes Gained data from Nicklaus’ era.

 

Ryan Ballengee, owner of Golf News Net — Tiger Woods

— I value Woods’ dominance over Nicklaus’ consistency.

— Woods made the cut in 142 straight PGA Tour events, a record likely never to be beaten.

— Woods had a share of the lead going into the final round of a major 15 times in his career, and he won 14 of them. 

— Woods has more blowout wins than Nicklaus.

— Woods was — and maybe still is — the best golfer in the world at a time when the game was changing dramatically, from equipment to fitness to money to data availability. 

— Nicklaus’ record in the majors, including 37 combined second- and third-place finishes, is incredible. It's my favorite golf statistic. But Woods was a more dominant player for just as long as Nicklaus was relevant, and he did that despite playing through four wholly unique swing changes.

 

Ben Coley, golf writer at Sporting Life — Tiger Woods

— The debate will likely never be fully put to bed. Were Woods to reach 19 majors, or even tie Nicklaus’ 18, I think there would be something close to unanimity with Woods rated No. 1. But I don’t think he’ll quite get there, and that leaves us with some uncertainty. Still, in my mind, the vote would have to go to Woods.

— Woods reshaped the sport as we know it.

— Not only did he produce some of the most dominant rounds, tournaments and seasons in history, not only did he win a U.S. Open on one leg, but he did it all as a black man in what was — and still is, to a lesser degree — a white man’s sport. One day I hope we’ll look back on Woods’ achievements as the final act in smashing down the door for kids from all backgrounds who believe they can follow in his footsteps.

— Woods was the last truly dominant golfer. And I think he should be remembered as the best this sport has produced.

 

Chris Fallica, golf handicapper and producer, ESPN’s “College GameDay” — Jack Nicklaus

— Woods’ impact on the sport financially and in popularity cannot be understated, so if that’s part of the criteria, he certainly moves up.

— A couple of areas where I think Nicklaus gets the edge are era and majors.

— Woods’ greatness transcended the sport, but I do think it came at a time where the PGA Tour was in transition. Look at the top 10 players in 1997, when Woods won the Masters. Names like Lehman, Ozaki, O’Meara and Elkington. Not saying they weren’t great players, but they aren’t exactly Watson, Ballesteros, Palmer, Player and Trevino. I do think the field was a little more top-heavy when Nicklaus was winning those 18 majors.

— Also factoring into the era debate is equipment. Nicklaus is probably the greatest driver ever, but how great would he have been with some of the modern technology from which Woods and today’s players have benefited dramatically?

— Both players are great. Both have had immeasurable impacts on the game, but I give Nicklaus the nod as the greatest.

 

Lyle Sapp, golf bettor, handicapper and historian — Tiger Woods

— 82 wins for Woods to Nicklaus’ 73.

— 18 World Golf Championship wins, with fields composed of the best players in the world.

— Win percentage of 22.8 to Nicklaus’ 18%.

— Named PGA Tour Player of the Year 11 times to five for Nicklaus.

— Nine times money-list leader to eight for Nicklaus.

— Woods is the greatest golfer of all time, and he’s not done yet.

 

Rich Zanco, golf oddsmaker and senior risk trader, CG Sportsbook — Jack Nicklaus

— Nicklaus is the greatest, winning 18 majors and the Masters six times, including his last at 46.

— Nicklaus had 19-runner-up finishes in majors and an even bigger number when you include top-3 finishes.

— Nicklaus played against fellow all-time greats such as Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson and came back from behind numerous times.

— Woods was the ultimate front-runner whose top competition wilted on Sundays, except for the likes of Bob May, Y.E. Yang, Michael Campbell and Rocco Mediate.

— Nicklaus put together a resume from start to finish that is unmatched, finishing in the top 10 in at least one major for nearly 25 years.

 

Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker and VP of risk management, Westgate SuperBook — Tiger Woods

— Off merit alone, Nicklaus leads the way with the record 18 major victories to Woods’ 15. Nicklaus also has 19 major runners-up to Woods’ seven.  

— Woods leads the way with 82 PGA Tour wins to Nicklaus’ 73. Looking at these areas alone, I would give the nod to Nicklaus.

— However, I firmly believe that athletes of the current era are better than those of previous eras. The competition of today's golf environment has never been deeper. Woods’ 2019 Masters win would tilt me toward him.

— The oddsmaker perspective in me would make Woods -200 vs. Nicklaus, setting a price based on each in his prime. Thus, I would say Woods is the greatest golfer of all time, with Nicklaus an obviously close second.

 

Will Gray, staff writer at Golf Channel — Jack Nicklaus

— Nicklaus was the greatest, but Woods was the most dominant.

— Nicklaus’ sustained level of excellence, especially in the biggest events, is unparalleled. It’s not just the 18 majors, it’s the 19 runners-up and countless top-10s. His record in the 1970s might actually be underrated.

— Nicklaus doesn’t have a singular performance that compares to Woods’ 2000 U.S. Open or a season that compares to 2000, or the Tiger Slam. What Woods did in not only beating fields but decimating them sets him apart.

— Clearly, the 2019 Masters changed the perceived edge Nicklaus had in terms of longevity. And Woods has done it against deeper fields. But that’s how I compartmentalize things. Nicklaus probably has the GOAT edge for now, but golf has never been played better than Woods at Pebble.

 

The verdict: Jack Nicklaus 6, Tiger Woods 4, Even or Undecided 2

 

I think this is a little bit like the Tom Brady-vs.-Joe Montana debate. Montana was probably better and was otherworldly brilliant for a short time (like Woods). But Nicklaus (like Brady) was the best consistently over decades. I also think Nicklaus faced more protagonists than Woods. In his prime, Woods basically competed against Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, David Duval, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson. Nicklaus had to deal with Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Dave Stockton, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf, Lanny Wadkins, Billy Casper, Raymond Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros and Hale Irwin. I think Woods was greater at times, but Nicklaus is the greatest.

 

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