Opinion: Who Is The Greatest Golfer Of All Time? Woods vs. Nicklaus
The PGA Championship was supposed to be played this month at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, California. That has obviously changed because of COVID-19 and has been since moved to August of this year. Despite there not being a tournament, we can still muse about who is the greatest golfer of all time.
There are really only two people who can be considered for this title – Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Both of these two guys are tops at the game of golf and have had remarkable careers, with Woods’ still mid-career. To determine who is the ‘G.O.A.T.’, I am going to use three different categories. The first is success in Major Championships. Second, you have success in non-Majors. The final category will look at each players dominance/prime of their career. So with all of that out of the way, let’s get started.
Category 1: Major Championships: The major championships are the biggest tournaments each year on the PGA Tour. There are four major championships each year, The Masters, The PGA Championship, The US Open and The Open Championship. Both of these guys performed well in majors during their careers but who performed better?
Woods: For his career thus far, Woods has 15 wins in majors, with his first coming in 1997 at The Masters where he became the youngest player to win The Masters at age 21, won by the largest margin in Masters history, winning by 12, and had the lowest score to par in Masters history at -18. His most recent major win also came at The Masters in 2019, completing his ‘return’ if you will from everything he went through in the late 2000s, to early 2010s. This was also his first major win since 2008. Another interesting thing about Woods’ major career is the ‘Tiger Slam.’ Woods is the only player in golf history to hold all four major championships at one time over the course of the 2000 and 2001 seasons. In his career, Woods has played in 84 major championships, won 15 like I said, has made the cut 72 times, and has finished in the top-10 41 times.
Nicklaus: Nicklaus for his career has won the most major championships in PGA Tour history with 18. His first major victory came in 1962 at the US Open at the age of 22. His final major win came at the 1986 Masters at the age of 46. Both of those were his first and final wins in his career respectively. Aside from winning the most majors in history, Nicklaus has the most wins in Masters history with six, Iisted for the most wins in PGA Championship history with five, and is tied for the most wins in US Open history with four. Three of the four major championships, Nicklaus has or is tied for the most wins which is extremely impressive. Nicklaus played in 164 majors in his career, winning 18 as mentioned, made the cut 131 times and finished in the top-10 73 times.
In the end, I have to give the advantage to Nicklaus in this category. Eighteen is greater than 15 and the fact that he has the most Masters wins, and is tied for the most wins in the PGA Championship and US Open are major points in his favor.
Category 2: non-Major Success: Looking at the non-Major championships, both of these guys dominated. These are the tournaments that are played on a week-to-week basis.
Woods: Woods is tied for first in all-time wins on the PGA Tour with 82, 67 of which came in non-Major championships, over the span of his 24 year career. He won his first tournament at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. His most recent win was at the 2020 Zozo Championship last fall. When Woods played in a playoff (meaning that there was a tie after four rounds) Woods has a record of 11-1. The most wins Woods ever had in a single season was back in 2000, winning 9 total tournaments.
Nicklaus: For Nicklaus, he is third all-time on the PGA Tour wins list with 73, 55 of which came in non-Majors over a 24-year stretch from his first win to his last. As I mentioned in the previous category, Nicklaus’ first win of his career came at the 1962 US Open, and his final win came at the 1986 Masters. When events went to a playoff, Nicklaus played in significantly more playoffs than Woods, having a record of 14-10 during his career. The most wins Nicklaus had in a single season was 7, which he did in back to back years in both 1972 and 1973.
This category is going to have to go in the direction of Woods. More wins overall and in non-Majors, a better record in playoffs, and although Nicklaus had 7 or more wins in a season twice, Woods did that four times.
Category 3: Dominance/Prime Of Their Career: Both of these guys are obviously extremely dominant during their respective careers, given that they are in this conversation, but who had the better ‘prime’ of their career, who was better when they were at the peak of their powers. For Woods, I am classifying his prime as from his first win in 1996 up until 2009, before all the injuries and his infidelity scandal. Nicklaus’ prime is simply from his first win to his final win of his career from 1962-1986.
Woods: As I mentioned, Woods’ prime is over the 13-year stretch from 1996 to 2009. During that stretch of his career, Woods won on the PGA Tour 71 times, that includes 14 majors. During that time period, Woods’ largest margin of victory was 15 strokes at the 2000 US Open, one of the greatest performances in the history of golf. Woods won by 11 or more strokes four times in his career.
Nicklaus: For Nicklaus, his prime is once again that 24-year stretch from 1962 to 1986 where he won 73 times during his career, 18 major championships. Nicklaus’ largest margin of victory of his career was nine strokes, which he did twice in his career, one of those times came at the 1965 Masters Championship, which was the largest margin of victory at The Masters until won by 12 in 1997.
Once again, Woods get the edge here. The fact that Woods had 71 wins during his 13-year prime, while Jack had 73 during his 24-year prime is not only extremely impressive, but extremely dominant.
Woods ultimately wins this contest 2-1, and I personally believe he could sweep Nicklaus 3-0 if he wins one, maybe two more major championships. Nicklaus is the clear second best golfer in history, but Woods has clearly past Nicklaus. I think if we were to have this debate ten years ago, I think it would be a different conversation because Nicklaus would have had more majors and more career wins. At the end of the day though, Woods is the standard for greatness in golf history, everyone is now chasing him, and since winning the Tour Championship in 2018, he does not show any signs of slowing down since returning from all the injury issues he had in the past.