Watching Tiger walk the fairway at the final hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where he received a rousing tribute at a place where golf history has been made for centuries, brought back images of Nicklaus when he made his last appearance at The Open in 2005.
While the 2022 Open may not be the last for Tiger, it seems an appropriate moment to look at the greatest two players in the history of golf side by side—and the similarity is striking.
Tiger’s eventual induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame was inevitable from the moment he burst onto the golf scene, as he surpassed Jack with three U.S. Amateur titles (1994-1996), while Jack won only two, losing in the quarter-finals in 1959. Under the carefully scripted guidance of Earl Woods, the father whom he deeply loved and admired, Tiger’s arrival on Tour had been long anticipated (most everyone has seen the famous clip of Tiger, at two years old, putting against Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show).
For Tiger though, it was always about Jack. Unlike every other sport, in golf there was never a debate about the best ever—hands down it was Nicklaus. And since Tiger’s goal from when he first picked up a club was to be the greatest ever to play the game, then Jack was the man to beat.
As a boy, Tiger had a list of Nicklaus’ amateur accomplishments hanging on his wall, with Jack’s age when each was achieved. Nicklaus was 17 years old when he first stepped onto the stage at the 1957 U.S. Open, and Tiger made his debut at 16 (the 1992 Nissan Open)—becoming the youngest ever to compete in a PGA Tour event. Expectations were sky high for Tiger as an enormous gallery gathered to follow him, and he also got a glimpse of the future, as the media hounded him relentlessly while exiting the eighteenth green when he completed his first round.
Pushing himself to stay ahead of Jack, however, would be no easy task. In ’93, when Tiger was 17, he entered three PGA Tour events, but missed the cut in each by a wide margin. At 18 he entered three more PGA tournaments, once again missing the cut in each. Jack, at 18, played two events—the U.S. Open (missing the cut), and the Rubber City Classic, where he made the cut and finished in a tie for 15th. Tiger needed to kick it up a notch.
In 1995 at age 19 he did just that—making his first ever cut at a PGA sanctioned event, and ironically it was The Masters, where his star shines the brightest. Jack, at 19, played seven Tour events, including the Masters and U.S. Open, missing the cut in both, but making the cut in all five regular Tour events, including a T12 at the Buick Invitational. But for Tiger and Jack, it’s always all about the majors, so Tiger had nudged ahead.
In ’96, at 20 years old and still an amateur, Tiger entered three tournaments–The Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship. He missed the cut at The Masters, but made the cut at the U.S. Open, and tied for 22nd at The Open Championship. In 1960, when Nicklaus was 20 and still an amateur, he also entered three tournaments–the Masters (tied for thirteenth), the U.S. Open (where he famously finished second to Arnie at Cherry Hills), and the Buick Open (making the cut). Again, Tiger would need to elevate his game to stay ahead of Jack, and once again he did exactly that—but with a different approach.
Nicklaus retained his amateur status through his 21st birthday in 1961, recording a T7 at The Masters and a T4 at the U.S. Open, while entering five regular tour events—and making the cut in each (including a T6 at the Milwaukee Open.)
Tiger, on the other hand, decided to turn pro at 20 following the ’96 Open Championship, and immediately dominated the Tour. He made the cut in all eight tournaments he entered, including 2 wins (The Vegas Invitational and The Oldsmobile Classic), a T3 at The Texas Open, T5 at The Quad Cities, and finished up with a trip to The Tour Championship.
For Tiger, his early challenges against seasoned tour pros served only to deepen his resolve, intensify his focus, and set the stage for an assault on the record book that Nicklaus had rewritten. And while Tiger and Jack have much in common, including tremendous power, uncanny putting, and the ability to hit towering long irons and destroy Par 5’s, what sets them apart from all others is a monumental will to win. Who can forget Tiger’s putt on eighteen at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open, where he fought through seventy-two holes with a fractured leg and torn ligaments in his knee to defeat Rocco Mediate. Or the putt Nicklaus holed on seventeen at The Masters in 1986, when he fired a back nine 30 on Sunday to win his final major at forty-six years old.
Both Tiger and Jack won their first major championship at 22 years old (the ’62 U.S. Open for Jack and the ’97 Masters for Tiger). While in his twenties, Tiger won eight Major’s, including four in a row (the famous “Tiger Slam”) beginning with the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters, putting him ahead of Jack’s pace (Nicklaus won seven majors in his twenties).
Curiously, both Jack and Tiger went into a lull at exactly the same time, as neither recorded a major win at 28 and 29 years of age. But Tiger came out of it faster, with four major wins between ‘05 and ’06, giving him a total of 12 major championships at 31 years old, while increasing his margin to 3 over Jack, who had 9 majors at 31.
Tiger added 2 more majors in ‘07 and ‘08, giving him 14 major championship wins at 33 years old as he headed into the 2009 season. Jack had picked up 3 majors between ’72 and ’73, giving him a total of 12 at age 33— so Tiger held a comfortable lead as he prepared to make his final assault on Jack’s record.
Following his incredible win at the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger underwent surgery to repair the ruptured tendons in his knee, and missed the rest of the season. But with intensive rehab, he was back for the ’09 season and looking like the Tiger of old. He recorded six wins including top 10’s at the Masters and U.S. Open, and a runner up at the PGA Championship. As the season came to a close it seemed certain that he would break Nicklaus’ record for major championship victories.
The runner-up finish at the ’09 PGA, however, would prove to be a turning point, the beginning of what became a long and difficult struggle for Tiger. He went into Sunday as the leader by two shots over Y.E. Yang and Padraig Harrington, having never yielded the lead at a major going to the final round. On this day, however, the clutch putts that had always been Tiger’s trademark failed to fall, and Yang charged past him to take the championship. The veil of invincibility had been lifted.
Within months his world was rocked again by reports of marital infidelity, his pristine image pummeled by the media as past transgressions came flooding out. Shortly thereafter his wife filed for divorce, and sponsors began to abandon him. While Tiger had been able to overcome physical injury, and even the loss of his dad in 2006, the steely mental toughness that defined him had taken a major blow, and he failed to record a single win in 2010 and 2011.
The Come Back
As the 2012 season got under way Tiger picked himself up, and at 37 years old he was determined to continue his pursuit of Jack. With seventy-one tour wins, he was only two behind Nicklaus, and even though he hadn’t won a major since 2008, he was still on pace to challenge Jack’s record for major championship wins (Jack also had fourteen majors at 37). Tiger recorded three wins in 2012 to pass Nicklaus in regular Tour titles, and added five more in 2013 to put some distance between them. Unfortunately, though, he was unable to take any of the majors (his best finishes were a T3 at the Open Championship in 2012, and a T4 at the Masters in 2013), so for the first time, at 39 years old, Tiger was behind Jack’s pace in his quest for the major championship record (Jack had recorded 15 major wins at age 39).
And then Tiger’s back blew up. It started toward the end of the 2013 season when he was hit with severe back spasms at The Barclays, just as the FedEx Cup playoffs were getting under way. Somehow, he was able to finish second, and make it through the final weeks of the season to the Tour Championship, but the writing was on the wall. Even after a few months of rest and rehab, the pain was only getting worse. Tiger tried to push through it as the 2014 season got underway, but was forced to withdraw from the Honda in early March and underwent his first back surgery shortly thereafter, announcing that he would miss the Masters (and he would miss the U.S. Open as well).
Determined to compete at the remaining majors, Tiger came back for the Open Championship and the PGA, but it was clear that the surgery had been unsuccessful, and even his indomitable will just wasn’t enough. Finishing well back at The Open, and then missing the cut at the PGA Championship, Tiger shut it down for the remainder of the season, opting for rest and rehab once again—but the pain would not subside.
In 2015 he tried to fight his way through once again, but was only able to tee it up 11 times, with his best finish a T17 at the Masters, while missing the cut at the other three majors. And so, at age 40, Tiger found himself 3 behind Nicklaus’ pace for the record in major championship wins (Jack recorded his seventeenth at 40).
Tiger made a decision to have a second back surgery in September, followed by another procedure barely a month later, and the 2016 season was completely lost. When he tried to return in 2017, his back broke down again, leaving him only one alternative for resuming his pursuit—a fourth surgery, this time spinal fusion, and the loss of yet another full season.
Most people would have given up at that point, but Tiger is not most people. After the surgery he dedicated himself to an even more rigorous rehab, and returned for the 2018 season ready to go. In 18 events he finished in the top ten 7 times, including a T6 at the Open Championship and a runner-up at the PGA, and then capped off the season with a win at the Tour Championship. But he had failed to move closer in his goal of reaching Jack’s record for major championship wins.
And then Tiger won The Masters in 2019, his 15th major title (and 5th Green Jacket), so at 44 he had suddenly moved back to within two of Nicklaus’ pace (Jack had recorded 17 major wins at 44, with his 18th and final major championship coming at age 46).
As the 2020 season got going Tiger came out strong with a T9 at The Farmers, held each year at Torrey Pines where he had won the 2008 U.S. Open. It looked like Tiger would make his presence felt in a big way at the 2020 major championships when suddenly the pandemic hit, putting the Tour season (and Tiger’s pursuit) on hold. By the time the world began opening up again, only two major championships could be held—The PGA, where Tiger recorded a T37, and the U.S. Open (that had been moved to September), where Tiger missed the cut.
As everyone knows, Tiger was involved in a horrendous automobile accident in February 2021, suffering massive leg injuries from which he is making a slow but steady recovery. At 46, it may appear that Tiger’s chase to match or surpass Jack’s major championship record is over.
Counting Tiger out, however, is never a good idea. You can be sure he has no intention of walking into the sunset just yet, and he’ll be back giving it everything he has. As the saying goes, “if there is a will, there is a way,” and Tiger has proven again and again that there is no one with a greater will to win.
With 82 PGA Tour victories, Tiger has surpassed Jack at seventy-three, and matched the record held by Sam Snead. And his 15 major championship wins are second only to Jack’s 18. Regardless of whether Tiger comes back to win another major or breaks Sam Snead’s record for Tour wins, the sports world now has a fierce debate as to the greatest golfer of all time.
Tiger holds 3 U.S. Amateur Championships to Jack’s 2, while Jack holds 18 Major Championships to Tiger’s 15, but Tiger won 82 tour events to Jack’s 73. Some may point to Jack’s overall record at the majors (Nicklaus finished in the top five 56 times, while Tiger recorded 33 Top-5 finishes), and others may say that Tiger faced much deeper fields throughout his career than did Jack.
Much of Tiger’s prime was lost to injury as well, and there is little doubt that he would have matched or surpassed Jack’s major championship win total had he remained healthy. Illness and injury have impacted the careers of great athletes throughout history, however. Lou Gehrig recorded 2,721 hits and had 493 home runs when he was diagnosed with ALS on his 36th birthday. And Bo Jackson, who likely would have been recognized as the greatest athlete in the history of sport, suffered a career ending injury at age 29 (he was selected for both the MLB All-Star team and NFL Pro Bowl—the only athlete ever to accomplish that feat).
Tiger has created a legacy of greatness that is simply remarkable, and while he may fall just short of his ultimate goal all those years ago, he has allowed us to witness golf history in the making— and don’t be surprised if he doesn’t find a way to keep Jack in his sights.