December 30, 2010
Now that Roger Federer has surpassed Pete Sampras as the all-time leader in Grand Slam titles, attention will now be refocused upon Federer's good friend Tiger Woods as he continues his quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus' historic mark of 18 major titles. Indeed, it's a quarry that Tiger has concentrated on since he was a young boy in California gazing at the list of Nicklaus' accomplishments that the prodigy pinned to his bedroom wall.
Unlike tennis, where there are a myriad of arguments to be made regarding who belongs in the greatest of all time debate, and there's a legitimate case for at least seven players to award that distinction, in golf it really does come down to Nicklaus and Woods as the two most dominant players in the modern era (defined here as starting with the inception of the Masters tournament in 1934). And the argument as to which of the two deserves the Greatest of All Time title is a fierce and complicated one to this point. If one needs an overriding theme for this discussion, it would read something like - Nicklaus is the greatest competitor of all time while Woods has undoubtedly shown the greatest flashes of sustained, compressed brilliance.
The similarities between the two legends are downright eerie at their career midpoint, age 33 - Tiger's current age. Woods still has this week's PGA at Hazeltine to add to his stats. But as of now, the numbers reflect a stunningly similar story for these greats. Consider their records through their first 52 major championships:
Nicklaus of course finished with 18 majors. And that's really the only number that Tiger is concerned with. And Woods is ahead of Jack's pace and most observers would be shocked if that record isn't broken before Woods turns 40. But the Golden Bear also nabbed the second place trophy 19 times at the majors, a feat that will likely never been overtaken.
Even more interesting is the arc the two have taken to career midpoint. Both were highly touted - touted is an understatement in describing the hype that surrounded Woods before he tore through Augusta in 1997 - when they started competing. Nicklaus, fresh out of Ohio State, won his first major at 22 when he defeated Arnold Palmer in a playoff at the US Open at Oakmont. Woods, who won the NCAA while at Stanford, was just 21 for his historic initial Masters triumph.
Both also went through slumps at exactly the same age. After his second US Open victory in 1967 at age 27 - completing a run of three of six majors won - until his second British Open triumph in 1970 when he was 30, Nicklaus went 12 straight majors without tasting victory.
Woods was the same age, 27, when he was mired in his worst slump of his stellar career. When Tiger won seven out of 11 majors from the PGA in 1999 through the US Open at Bethpage in 2002, including the four in a row 2000 completing the Tiger Slam when he held all four major titles at once, many thought that he'd never be stopped. But he then did not record another victory at a major until the 2005 Masters, a run of 10 events. Since then, save for his knee injury and absence from the Tour, he's been back to his usual dominant self, winning an average of a major or two per year.
There's also harmony and concurrence of sorts with the Golden Bear and Tiger in a somewhat less quantifiable topic - that of the level of competition each defeated to win their titles.
It'd be hard to find an astute follower of the sport who wouldn't argue that the quality of competitors that Nicklaus faced was far superior to that of Woods. Nicklaus competed against four legends during his - and their - prime; Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. One could also toss the names of Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskoph, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd onto that list as second-tier threats.
Woods, through no fault of his own obviously, has not had a consistent foil to push him. Phil Mickelson should have been there all along but he didn't get started until his early-mid 30's. Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen are all multiple-major winners but weren't able to sustain their superb play over an extended period.
But while Nicklaus had to thwart a richer field of players, he rarely defeated his strongest foes - save for Palmer three times and Player once - when winning major titles. Neither Watson nor Trevino finished second to Nicklaus in a major. Yet Nicklaus finished in second place to both the consistent Watson and the unorthodox Trevino four times each. When one thinks of the legendary Sunday battles that Nicklaus was engaged in - Turnberry in 1977, Pebble Beach in 1982 against Watson; the US Open at Merion in 1971 against Trevino (the only major playoff Nicklaus didn't win) and others - he usually ended up the bridesmaid on these occasions.
So who did Nicklaus defeat when he was at his peak in the 1970's? Bruce Crampton, who never won a major, was the most frequent runner-up to Nicklaus, notching four second place finishes. Doug Sanders, also winless at majors, was twice second to Nicklaus at majors as was Tom Weiskoph who recorded one major victory. In all, 10 of the second place finishers to Nicklaus at majors were also major title holders.
With Woods, it is much the same story. Only half (7) of Woods' major triumphs have resulted in a runner-up who had won one of the big four tournaments.
Even with Nicklaus and Woods not always beating the big names in their respective eras, what the numbers irrefutably reflect is the extraordinary consistency they both maintained. With Nicklaus the numbers are superlative-defying. In one stretch comprising the period from the 1970 British Open through the 1978 British championship, Nicklaus finished in the Top 10 an amazing 31 out of 33 times (with a streak of 13 contained within). An utterly bewildering accomplishment.
While Woods has been no slouch either where consistency is measured, it nevertheless pales so far to the Golden Bear's major championship resume. Woods has amassed a streak of eight consecutive top ten finishes at majors, during a run of 12 out of 14 top ten marks.
So back to the question of this best ever business. Can Tiger Woods be already declared the best ever now? And let's say he does indeed win 20 majors - should it be automatic that he'll be bestowed greatest of all time status? Definitely not and not necessarily, respectively.
Woods' legacy is already secure no matter if he ends up with 18 or 25 majors. The resume is well known. He is the only golfer to own all four major championships at one time. He has the scoring record for all the majors. He has never lost a playoff at a major. And he is without question the greatest front-runner in the history of golf - perhaps in the history of all sports for that matter.
But the last statement brings up the one glaring weakness etched on Woods' ledger - namely that Tiger has never come from behind to win at a major. And since his competition has not been as stellar as Jack's and one would have assumed that Woods would have been able to muster up a Sunday comeback by now, the question begs - is Nicklaus a greater pure competitor than Woods? I'd say yes for both consistency and drama. The consistency has been documented above.
The drama is contained in the fact that Nicklaus came back to win majors on eight occasions when trailing after 54 holes. Most memorable of these of course is the 1986 Masters when he capped his singular career at age 46, whittling away a four shot deficit with a stirring 30 on the back nine. Jack was always present, seemingly always a force on Sundays, a threat never to be discounted.
Not so with Woods. Though the networks would lead all viewers to believe that Tiger is always "lurking", ready to "pounce" on the competition, that hasn't been the case at all. When Woods is leading he's nearly unstoppable. There's no debating that point. And there is a sense that players actually cower in his presence when he is atop the leaderboard. But on those final rounds when he's trailing by a shot or two, Woods has been more a practitioner of the Sunday fadeout than a force to be reckoned with.
Just like his Gillette advertisting buddy, Federer was saddled with the label of not being able to win coming from behind (to be fair, the guy hasn't been behind all that much to start with at any point) or to win a tight five set encounter. The last two years have shown that Federer can do both. Now it's Woods' turn. As he passes the halfway point on his already brilliant career Woods will need to pull off a comeback or two if he is to be paired with Nicklaus as the greatest ever. Until he does that, the Golden Bear shall remain alone at the top.