Sorry Tiger, Nicklaus Still Rules

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 05, 2008
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With six wins in his last seven starts, including a perfect three for three for 2008, talk has once again surfaced about Tiger’s place in history. And why not? Fresh off a year where he bagged seven wins and 12 top 10 finishes in 16 events, he’s successfully backed up his 2006 campaign that saw eight wins and two majors in 15 starts. He’s passed the King in victories and Walter Hagen in majors. He’s accomplished more in his 12 years on tour than any who has come before, and barring injury should finish with every record in the book - the Ryder Cup not withstanding. But, right now, is he better than the Golden Bear? To eliminate any unwarranted anticipation, the short answer is no.

For all his dominance, Tiger Woods is much like Kobe Bryant and LaBron James. At this point in their careers, both have accomplished more individually than the guy generally considered the best of all time. But until the tally becomes more complete, deference must be paid to the elders. Just as Bryant and James may some day be considered better than Michael Jordan, Woods may supplant Jack Nicklaus as the greatest to ever swing an iron. It’s just going to take time.

Woods himself called Nicklaus the greatest champion to have ever lived, following his idol’s retirement at the 2005 British Open. Tiger knows the history of his sport and never forgets to honor the past - except when he and others turned their backs on the Byron Nelson Classic upon the great man’s death. But there is a lot of merit behind Woods’ comment. The farther you dig into Nicklaus’ history, the more spectacular it becomes.

We all know of his 18 majors and two U.S. Amateur titles, but he also finished second 19 times and third nine times in the big events. That’s 46 top three finishes, and as we know, in golf, majors are everything. Woods has a total of 20 such finishes with 13 wins, four No. 2s and three No. 3s. If you want to track it even further, Jack had 73 top 10 finishes in majors compared to 27 for Woods. Nicklaus’ dominance gets a further push when considering he once finished among the top 10 in 13 straight majors. On another occasion, he did so for nine straight. The best Tiger could manage was top 10 in six straight.

In all fairness to Woods, however, he did score five victories in those six tournaments. And while Tiger is only nine PGA wins behind Nicklaus, he trails in total career wins by 28 (115 to 87).

Many who argue in Tiger’s favor note, correctly, that he is playing in an era of heightened competition. Golfers today are more athletic and the field is deeper than ever. But while there are more good golfers today than at any time in the game’s history, the top five to 10 players of the Golden Bear’s heyday were better than their counterparts today. Tiger’s top competitors - Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, and maybe Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia - are all immensely talented and capable of winning on any weekend. But, frankly, they don’t measure up. Jack’s list of Hall of Fame competitors - including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Raymond Floyd - account for 39 majors and 185 PGAvictories compared to 12 and 104 for Tigers’ pesky pals.

But, some may argue, it is because of Tigers’dominance that the competition has done comparatively poorly. No question Woods may be the most dominant athlete of any era, but others have to take some of that blame.

Although it is not publicly mentioned as often as in years past, there is a large segment of the tour that believe Tiger, when on his game, is all but unbeatable - a belief that Palmer, Player, Trevino and the like would never allow themselves to consider. Tiger wins as much by fear as he does with talent. Also, now that victories are no longer needed for financial stability, there is not much incentive to finish higher. When Palmer piled his wife and kids into a station wagon and headed out on tour, he did so to earn a living. Today, the goal seems to be keeping your tour card. A year ago 99 golfers each made at least $1 million on the PGA while nearly the same amount (95) made more than $500,000 on the Nationwide Tour.

One day Tiger will be the best to have ever played the game. For now, the Golden Bear still rules.

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