Monday, February 11, 2008

Who is the Best Golfer of All Time?

A recent debate between friends of mine at a local bar inspired today's post. Simply, who is the best golfer of all time? Is it Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus? Much like arguments in other sports, this debate spans different eras, styles of play, levels of competition, equipment and playing surface changes, and medical advances. I will attempt to divide up this post into separate issues that I believe make up the basis of the argument. If there are any other issues to be raised at the end of the post, please let me know.

First, let's examine where Tiger stands statistically compared to Nicklaus at the same time in their careers.

Woods has won 62 PGA Tour events (13 majors) in his 12-year career. Nicklaus won 73 times (18 majors) in his 22-year career. When Nicklaus was 32, he had won 38 events, including nine majors. Even for those who support Nicklaus, this part of the argument is pretty one-sided. Woods has been on a remarkable pace ever since he entered the Tour. For NFL running backs, 32 is the end of the line. For golfers, it's the prime of their career. As shown in the stats above, Nicklaus had a Hall of Fame career just between the ages of 32-40.

Now, Woods's future, and where he ultimately places himself on golf's leaderboard, will depend on how he performs in his 30s and 40s. His work ethic is unquestionably the best in pro golf. How many players at the top of a sport will willingly throw away a whole season reworking a swing that had already won a few majors? Some so-called experts said Woods's dedication would wane after his marriage and subsequent birth of his daughter. Yet, just like Nicklaus, he has managed to work a family life around his golf life just fine. That development will play no part in Woods's future.

With the way Woods keeps himself in shape and how he always is looking to improve, I have no doubt that Tiger will continue to find success as he ages. Strength training and conditioning are much more important and widely known today than they were during Nicklaus's heyday in the 60s and 70s. These techniques will only serve to keep Tiger's body healthy and young as he ages. That will allow him to push the majors and PGA Tour wins record out of reach by the time he hits 45. Now, we shouldn't punish Nicklaus for not being able to use these modern medical advances. His win at the 1986 Masters at age 46 should only prove that he was one of the best golfers of all time. I just want to point out how far Tiger can take these records because of the new technology and techniques. But, as I showed in the aforementioned stats, Tiger's accomplishments at similar points in their careers shows how much better Tiger is than Jack.

Another point of contention is level of competition each man has faced. Woods is facing players from across the globe every time he tees it up. The Tour now attracts golfers from Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, and Spain. In fact, the 2008 PGA Tour lists 78 international members from 19 different countries. For a comparison, in 1970 there were seven international winners on the Tour. In 2007, that number was up to 13. Basically, Woods is playing against a much larger pool of players than Nicklaus was. In simple economic terms of supply and demand, the expanding talent base leads to higher competition. The Tour doesn't expand as more countries turn out top golfers. Those golfers just have to be better and better to find a spot on the Tour. When looking at it from this point of view, it's amazing that Woods has accomplished so much while constantly facing the world's best.

When I say the world's best, it's usually quite true. Because of the large purses at today's events, Woods can afford to pick and choose what events he plays in now. Therefore, he typically skips many of the PGA Tour events in preparation for the majors or World Golf events. These tournaments are the creme of the crop in golf. Only the best golfers are invited and the courses are some of the toughest in the world. For much of Nicklaus's career, he did not have this option. He played in many more events than Tiger, which his why he accumulated more top-10s and runner-up finishes. Nicklaus's backers like to cite those stats when arguing his case. But, really what matters most -- wins or times in the top 10? The answer is easy.

Finally, I want to address one more point. I have heard from some Nicklaus supporters that he played with inferior equipment on less refined courses than Woods. Here's my response to that, "So did everyone he played with." It wasn't like Nicklaus was putting up those win totals while everyone else was using equipment from 2008. I don't have much more to say about this silly argument. This is not like basketball where you can argue that Rodman was a better rebounder than Chamberlain even though Wilt routinely pulled down 25 rebounds a game. The game was different than; people missed more shots while shooting more times. We're talking golf where individual stats like greens/fairways in regulation dont't make or break a golfer. It's an individual sport that rewards one thing: wins.

How did Nicklaus stack up against his contemporaries and how Woods do against his? Nicklaus won less often than Woods did through the age of 32. Woods also does it against tougher competition from a larger talent base around the world. To me, there is little question as to who is the better golfer.

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