Dexter Rogers

Dexter Rogers

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tiger or Nicklaus: Who is the greatest golfer of all time?


In the art world it’s suggested that nothing is as good as the original. If the latter is true who do you think would take home the dough if Woods or Nicklaus squared off in their primes?

When Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods competed in the skins game over a week ago I'm sure many wish they could turn back the clock. I’m surely one of them. Instead of Nicklaus being a 69 year old legend hosting his own PGA tour event some wish he was 29 walking alongside Woods up the 18th green tied with the trophy at stake.

I’ve had an opportunity to watch Tiger live as a fan in California and I’ve been credentialed to cover him as a writer in Ohio. I grew up watching Nicklaus on television as a youngster. I must say Woods recently put on a show for the ages at Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. He was down by four strokes Sunday morning and he was hoisting the trophy in triumph later that evening. It’s fitting that he won on the course that Jack built because unfortunately he serves as Tiger’s chief rival.

I’m fully aware of what I’m witnessing with Woods. But we must not forget what Nicklaus did. Woods greatness is vast because of his ability, personality, marketing, and cable television. Being a student of sports history I know Nicklaus won his trophies against the likes of Arnold Palmer, Tony Jacklin, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Ray Floyd, Johnnie Miller, Seve Ballesteros, and Tom Watson to name a few. All of these players won major championships I might add.

In boxing Ali had Frazier. Pete Sampras, whose career Grand Slam record was just equaled by Roger Federer, had Andre Agassi as a rival. Federer has a formidable rival in Rafael Nadal. Tiger doesn’t have anyone special. He’s is playing against the likes of Phil Mickleson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els. They are very good players but certainly not on Arnold Palmer or a Tom Watson level.

Tiger doesn’t have any rivals. Partly because he’s simply better than everyone else and the players aren’t as good now as they were back in the day. But in Tiger's defense shouldn’t he be victimized by not having a formidable rival and for the players not shifting to a gear they just don’t have. Woods is measuring himself by the gold standard of golf (Nicklaus) and rightfully so.

Nicklaus had many rivals from the 1960’s through the 1980’s and he still won more than anyone else. Nicklaus was nicknamed “The Bear.” While at the apex of his greatness players were clawing to tame him but they couldn’t. They tried to put him into hibernation at age 40 but he won the 1980 US Open and PGA championships. The media almost forced him into hibernation again but at 46 he captured the Masters to silence his critics. Remarkably at age 58 he was briefly in contention on the final day of the 1998 Masters as he was seeking his 7th trophy but he fell short and still finished in sixth place.

We know Nicklaus won 18 majors but he came in second and incredible 19 times. This demonstrates he was continually in position to win.

I’ve been asked whose if Woods is better than Nicklaus. When I look at the whole body of work I still narrowly must go with Nicklaus. He's won majors in three different decades, won every major at least three times, and he won a major at 46. We know what he's done and his record speaks for itself.

Tiger has succeeded in capturing world-wide appeal through stellar play, winning, and mass marketing. Woods has it all and his clutch performances are the stuff of legend. Tiger has 14 majors and counting: the way he played last week it could be 15 next at the US Open. He's 33 so he has lots of majors left in him.

But today, even at seeing what he did at the Memorial last week I cannot fall captive to the euphoria of the now and forget all the legendary moments Nicklaus posted while at the apex of his powers. Barring any injuries he’ll pass Nicklaus with ease. Once he does I’ll be the first to Tiger is the greatest golfer of all time.

I guess I’m just ole school in my thinking. In my book nothing is as good as the original until that greatness is eclipsed.

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