Tiger’s competition vs. Jack’s competition
The U.S. Open starts today — it’s already started; Tiger Woods is even through four holes as I type this — and a major always is a good time to renew the Tiger vs. Jack Nicklaus debate.
Nicklaus had 18 major titles; Tiger has 14 and counting, at the age of 33. A common belief is that Nicklaus had better elite competition than does Tiger, that while the talent pool today is far deeper than what Nicklaus faced, the stars are fewer today. Basically, it comes down to this. Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer vs. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen.
On the surface, it looks like a mismatch. Of the 13 players in history with at least six major titles, four were contemporaries of Nicklaus and none are contemporaries of Tiger.
But two things must always be considered. 1. Tiger is in mid-career; he will win a lot more majors, and his contemporaries will win a lot more majors. 2. Tiger is winning at a much higher rate than did Nicklaus; if it weren’t for Tiger, his contemporaries would have more impressive records in majors.
Tiger has won 14 of his 47 majors since he broke through in the 1997 Masters. Nicklaus won 18 of his 103 majors from his first, the 1962 U.S. Open, through 1987, which was his last truly-competitive season.
So if Tiger stays competitive another 10-15 years — who among us believes he won’t — then not only will he far surpass Nicklaus’ majors total, but some of his contemporaries will reach the totals of some of Nicklaus’ rivals.
Now, Gary Player’s nine majors are out of reach. Tom Watson’s eight, too, I’d say. But Palmer’s seven and Trevino’s six? Not necessarily.
Mickelson and Els each have won three majors. And both would have more if not for Tiger. Mickelson finished second to Tiger in the 2002 U.S. Open, and Els twice has tied for second behind Tiger, in the 2000 U.S. and 2000 British opens. Goosen, who has two majors, also finished runnerup to Woods, in the 2002 Masters.
Who were the chief victims of Nicklaus? Well, Palmer I assume you know about. Arnie thrice was second to Nicklaus, including one tie. Tom Kite and Tom Weiskopf each twice tied for second behind Nicklaus. Greg Norman tied for second behind Nicklaus. So did Johnny Miller. Billy Casper finished runnerup once. Tom Watson never did.
But the player most cursed by Nicklaus was Australian Bruce Crampton. Crampton was a solid player who had a fine career and dominated for a stretch on the senior tour. Crampton four times finished second in majors, including one tie. All four times, he finished second to Nicklaus.
Bruce Crampton never won a major.
So what’s the verdict on our debate? I would say that the deeper talent pool now has cut into the majors won by most great players. The majors are spread out more, with the notable exception of Tiger Woods.
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