Tiger vs. Jack, Part IIWednesday, April 8, 2009 22:27
Most memorable stories have a character overcoming impossible odds to achieve an ultimate goal. John Elway finally winning a Super Bowl became a storybook feat only because he had smelled the promised-land roses twice before but couldn’t find entrance into the Garden. The Boston Red Sox’s dramatic ’04 playoff victory over the Hated Stankees was made infinitely sweeter because a century of failure and a fateful curse was about to be obliterated.
In golf, Ben Hogan won six majors after a near fatal car accident. Paul Azinger beat cancer to play on the Tour.
Our examination of the legendary careers of Eldrick Woods Jr. and Jack W. Nicklaus—and trying to determine who is the all-time greatest—begs the following question…
How did adversity shape the careers of Tiger and Jack?
Given his last major win and his recent triumph at Bayhill, we know Tiger can overcome the adversity of injury. The guy is a beast, benches 350, lifts everyday, and still has the flexibility of Gumby.
Nicklaus had a chronically achy back before the age of 30. Forty years ago, there were no nutritionists or personal trainers, or arthroscopic surgeons. In fact, if Jack had sustained the 2008 knee injury Tiger did forty years ago, his career would have been over.
Adversity in sports sometimes comes from fate, timing, or other demons an athlete cannot tame.
Even great athletes of the 70s did not earn the “screw the world” money today’s journeymen earn. Peter Lonard, the 100th earner on the PGA Tour all-time money list has made more money in the last four years than Jack Nicklaus did in 46 years as a professional golfer.
In his first thirteen seasons, Tiger has won 66 tournaments. He reached 50 wins after 10 years on tour. Jack did not reach that milestone until his thirteenth year. However, over his first decade the Golden Bear played in fifty more tournaments than Tiger—five kids are serious motivation— which probably contributed to Nicklaus’ bad back at a relatively young age.
There is adversity Nicklaus faced that gives him a significant edge in terms of who was forged with the stronger hammer.
People sometimes forget when “The Golden Bear” burst onto the world stage at the1960 U.S Open at Cherry Hills, he was a still in college—and nobody knew him by that nickname. He gave a still great, but fading, Ben Hogan all he could handle, playing with him in that Sunday’s final group. If it wasn’t for a legendary Arnold Palmer charge from seven strokes back, and rookie course management from the youngster, Nicklaus would have beaten two icons as a twenty-year-old amateur “by ten strokes,” according to Hogan.
The golfing public—which was almost single-handedly fashioned by the charismatic hand of Arnie and his Army and aided by the growth spurt of TV—didn’t particularly like a chubby kid from an Ohio country club having the temerity to challenge “The King.”
In fact, during the 1962 U.S. Open play-off against Palmer at famed Oakmont, the gallery catcalled Nicklaus derisively with nicknames like “Fat Jack” and “Ohio Fats.” When Nicklaus won that playoff by three strokes, the rivalry with Palmer turned bitter for at least the next decade.
The Golden Bear wasn’t Nicklaus’ moniker until after he and Arnie made nice in the late 70’s, and the public begrudgingly realized the fat kid from Ohio might be the best ever.
Conversely, Tiger came into the golf world during a lull in the sport’s popularity. There was no dominant figure in the game. Nick Faldo had retired and Greg Norman had other things to do. Young players like Justin Leonard, Payne Stuart, and David Duval had shown promise but none deserved mention with the all-time greats.
The world’s eyes were on young Tiger and he did not disappoint. Television ratings spiked along with prize money and golf supplanted tennis as the cool individual sport for American kids to play.
High expectations create tremendous pressure, but not compared to high expectation and hostile galleries every week.
And there are other questions…
Who Have You Played?
The quality of who you have to face down tournament after tournament cannot be dismissed as easily as many in the punditocracy contend. They try to sell the public on how deep today’s field is and that Jack had to worry about 5-10 golfers while Tiger has to worry about 150, any one of whom can surge to the top and win any given tourney.
If you buy that one, I have some swampland in Tucson you gotta get in on.
The argument is laughable. The handful of golfers who hope to be to Woods what Nicklaus was to Palmer all fizzle when it is time to sparkle. Goosen, Els, even Mickleson have yet to match Tiger shot for shot the way Casper, Watson, Trevino, Palmer, and Player matched Nicklaus—week in week out, year after year.
Excluding Tiger, those five players alone have more majors to their credit than the top 100 in today’s rankings. Jack consistently played against hall-of-famers tournament after tournament—Ballesteros, Miller, Irwin, and Floyd, to name a few more from 1960 until his last major win in 1986.
Of course, Tiger has no control over who the cosmos put before him. He has beaten all comers, but Mickelson, Harrington, and Vijay simply do not test him the way the Watsons and Trevinos tested Nicklaus. If we use the logic of Tigermaniacs, we then must recognize Rocky Marciano as the greatest boxer ever.
Think that would create some debate?
When has another golfer given Woods something to think about on the golf course? While it is true he has never lost after holding the 54-hole lead, Tiger has yet to mount a Sunday charge from a deficit. In fact, including, Rocco Mediate’s challenge in last year’s U.S. Open, we are hard pressed to find any tournament where Tiger was at his best and playing another golfer who was playing at his best. His other two play-off wins came against Sergio Garcia and Bob May, neither of whom will be kicking down the Hall of Fame door in St. Augustine Florida.
Nicklaus won eight of his 18 majors trailing after 54 holes, two others when tied. He beat Palmer in the ’62 U.S. Open play-off, in Arnie’s back yard.
Five of Jack’s most famous second place finishes are summarized here:
Who beat Jack? Palmer, Watson and Trevino, with 21 majors among them.
Nicklaus entered the arena when Palmer was at his zenith. Trevino, Casper, Player, Raymond Floyd were his contemporaries. Ten years later guys like Seve Ballestertos, Watson, Nelson, Hubert Green, and Johnny Miller, all HOFers and multiple major winners, battled Nicklaus the rest of his career.
On this point, the argument of who is the greatest golfer in history clearly turns in favor Jack Nicklaus.
What Tools Do You Have?
Today’s golfers not only have the growth of sports sciences as an asset but the equipment they use has forced architects to redesign modern golf courses to well over 7000 yards and counting.
Watching an old documentary on the Big Three, as they were known—Palmer, Player, Nicklaus—was telling because of the astonishment observers had when “Jack blasted a 230 yard one-iron within a foot of the pin” or “Arnie rifled a 240 yard three-wood onto the green.”
Today, those lengthy shots can be made with a well-struck three iron by average-length hitters, (accuracy, of course, is another matter.) Tom Kite, once was known as a notoriously short driver of the ball, now routinely hits 300 yard drives.
Technology has created golf balls that add 20+ yards for the average golfer—if she wants to spend 4.00 per ball.
Experts correctly give Tiger credit for making the whole field more physically fit, stronger and healthier. Golfers were not considered athletes until Woods hit the scene. He has made everyone who plays work harder to be a better golfer.
So how does our argument end? We have Tiger averaging 5+ wins and 1+ major per year. We have Nicklaus dominating and finishing second to hall-of-fame opponents for 26 years. Jack finished in the top five of 163 majors 35% of the time; Tiger, sits at 42% against clearly inferior competition.
Make a great movie wouldn’t it?
Here’s the pitch…The year is 2075. St. Peter, an avid golfer, (you should see the greens in heaven), is sick of the debate. Jack and Tiger have both been dead awhile so he proposes the following:
A four-day event, alternating rounds of stroke and match play. Here are the rules: “We will fit you to identical 500.00 clubs from Wilson. One set of persimmon woods with steel shafted irons made in the 70’s, one set of titanium heads with graphite shafts from the 2000’s. You must use a different kind of set each round. Balls from Pinnacle, 1995/doz, at Sport Chalet, (Oh yeah, they’re still around.”)
“The four day event will be held at a course neither of you have ever played. You get two weeks to practice and to make last minute tweaks to your swings and equipment. When you return to earth, the talent you have will exactly match that of your three most successful years on tour.”
Nicklaus wins an 18-hole playoff by four strokes.
He has been there before.
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