Debates with friends are always fun. Well, let me take that back. Political debates? Not so much these days. Golf debates, however, don’t appear to be on the endangered list. Thank goodness!
Probably the No. 1, always-gets-a-reaction golf debate is: Who is The GOAT – The Greatest Of All Time? Is it Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods?
I understand that Tiger is tied with Sam Snead for the most career PGA Tour wins with 82 and that Jack only has 73, but I have always put a premium on the Majors. That’s where Jack really stands out.
- Consistency -- From the 1970 British Open through the 1978 British Open, Nicklaus finished in the Top 10 in 31 of 33 Majors. In the two in which he didn't, he tied for 11th and 13th.
- Major Wins -- Jack 18; Tiger 15.
- Major 2nd place finishes -- Jack 19; Tiger: 6.
- Major 3rd place finished -- Jack 9; Tiger: 4.
- Major Top 5s -- Jack: 55; Tiger: 31.
- Major Top 10s -- Jack: 73; Tiger: 41.
- Longest streak of Top-5 in Majors -- Jack: 7; Tiger: 6.
- Winning span in Majors -- Jack: 24 years (1962-1986); Tiger: 22 (1997-2019).
I think the Major numbers give Jack the decided advantage in the Nicklaus vs. Woods GOAT debate, but is there a case to be made for anyone else? I think so. What about the co-founder of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, Robert Tyre Jones Jr? True his career was relatively short, but his numbers are mind boggling.
Bobby Jones (1902 – 1971) – “Professional” Majors Won: 7 (1923 U.S. Open, 1926 U.S. Open, 1926 British Open, 1927 British Open, 1929 U.S. Open, 1930 U.S. Open, 1930 British Open). “Amateur” Majors Won: 6 (1930 British Amateur, 1924, ‘25’, ‘27, ’28 & ‘30 U.S. Amateur). During his era, the four Majors were the British Amateur, The British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. All told, Jones, who never gave up his amateur status, played in 31 Majors from 1923 to 1930, winning 13 times and finishing in the Top 10 27 times. His BIGGEST YEAR was 1930 when he won all four Majors.* It is considered by many to be the GREATEST YEAR EVER BY A PLAYER! He retired that same year from competitive golf despite being just 28.
*The Amateur Championship, Old Course at St Andrews (May 31, 1930), The British Open, Royal Liverpool GC at Hoylake (June 20, 1930), U.S. Open, Interlachen CC (July 12, 1930), U.S. Amateur, Merion GC (Sept. 27, 1930)
I don’t think there is any dispute that the Masters Tournament is now considered to be a Major because of Jones’s greatness as a player. Yes, he and his friend Clifford Roberts selected a great piece of property to build Augusta National on and, yes, Jones and golf architect Alistair Mackenzie did an amazing job with the land, but it was Jones’s star power that allowed the dream of starting a national golf club to become a reality.
As his World Golf Hall of Fame bio says, “Beginning with his victory in the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood and ending with his U.S. Amateur victory at Merion in 1930, Jones won 13 championships in 20 tries, the most imposing run of major titles the game has ever seen.”
Okay, so back to the GOAT debate. Based on my criteria of emphasizing the Majors, I still believe Nicklaus is THE BEST EVER. He has not only won the most, but he contended far more often than any other player in history.
Who is No. 2? This is where I am chickening out!
I am calling it a Tie 2 between Jones and Woods. Woods has had the longer run with 15 Major titles over 22 years, but Jones had the best run ever – 13 Major wins over a 7-year period. We will never know, of course, but just imagine what Jones’s total would have been if he had just played another three of four years. As three-time Major winner Tommy Armour (1896 – 1968) said, “It is nonsense to talk about who was the greatest in the world. All you can say is that there have been none greater than Bobby Jones.”
Tip Of The Day: If you haven’t read Down The Fairway: The Golf Live and Play of Robert T. Jones, Jr. by Jones and O.B. Keeler (1st printing: 1927, Minton, Balch & Company), you should put it on your Christmas wish list.