The Greatest of All-Time: Tiger and Jack

As Tiger makes himself at home in the World Golf Hall of Fame and we head toward the Masters, it seems like a good moment to take a look at where his record stands alongside Jack Nicklaus, commonly viewed as the greatest player the game has ever seen. Tiger’s eventual induction to the Hall seemed inevitable from the moment he burst onto the golf scene, as he surpassed Jack with three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles (1994-1996), while Jack won only two of three (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. So, if your goal is to be the greatest golfer in history, then Jack is the man to beat. As a youngster, 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 ’57 U.S. Open. Tiger made his debut at 16, in the ’92 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 after the first round.

Tiger wins first U.S. Amateur

Amateur Careers

Pushing himself to stay ahead of Jack, however, would be no easy task. In ’93, at 17, Tiger entered three 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 fifteenth—advantage Jack. In 1995, at age 19, Tiger entered four tournaments, making his first cut ever 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 back 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). At this point, the pendulum swings back over to Jack. While Tiger decided to turn pro in ’96 following The Open Championship, Nicklaus retained his amateur status through ’61, and at 21 finished tied for seventh at The Masters and tied for fourth at the U.S. Open. Jack also entered five regular tour events that year, making the cut in each, and recording a T6 at the Milwaukee Open. Tiger, on the other hand, was storming the PGA tour before his 21st birthday, making the cut in all eight tournaments he entered, including two wins (The Vegas Invitational and The Oldsmobile Classic), a T3 at The Texas Open, T5 at The Quad Cities, and 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 is a monumental will to win. And 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 left knee to defeat Rocco Mediate. Or the putt Nicklaus holed on seventeen at The Masters in 1986, when he fired a back nine 30 to win his final major at forty-six years old. 

The Chase

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 “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 twelve at 31 years old, and increasing his margin to three over Jack, who had nine majors at 31. Tiger added two more in ‘07 and ’08, giving him fourteen major championship wins at 33 years old, heading into the 2009 season. Jack picked up three majors between ’72 and ’73, giving him a total of twelve at age 33, so while Tiger lost a little ground, he was in a good position to make his final assault on Jack’s record with a margin of two going to the back stretch.

Tiger Struggles

The Struggle

After his gutsy 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. But the runner-up finish at the ’09 PGA 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 Comeback

The Comeback

But Tiger picked himself up for the 2012 season, 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).

Tiger Fights Through Injury

The Pain

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, 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 it again, but was only able to tee it up 11 times, with his best showing a T17 at the Masters, while missing the cut at the other three majors. And now at 40, he found himself three back of Nicklaus’ pace for the record in major championship wins (Jack recorded his seventeenth at 40), so he decided to have a second back surgery in September, followed by another procedure barely a month later. The 2016 season was completely lost for Tiger, and 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, with the loss of another full season.

Tiger Wins Fifteenth Major Championship

The Resurrection

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 eighteen events he finished in the top ten seven times, including a T6 at the Open Championship and a runner-up at the PGA, while capping it off 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 in 2019, Tiger won The Masters, his fifteenth major title (and fifth Green Jacket), so at 44 he had moved back to within two of Nicklaus’ pace (Jack was 46 when he won his eighteenth and final major championship). As the 2020 season got going Tiger came out strong, with a T9 at The Farmers, held annually at Torrey Pines where he had won the 2008 U.S. Open. But then 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.

In February 2021 Tiger was involved in a horrendous automobile accident, suffering massive leg injuries from which he has yet to recover. At 47, it appears that Tiger’s chase to surpass Jack’s major championship record may be over. But counting Tiger out is never a good idea, because you can be sure he has no intention of laying down. Expect Tiger to be back, giving it everything he has—and don’t be surprised if he doesn’t find a way to inch a little bit closer to Jack with another major.

Tiger and Jack

The recap

With eighty-two PGA Tour victories, Tiger has surpassed Jack at seventy-three, and matched the record held by Sam Snead. And his fifteen major championship wins are second only to Jack, with eighteen. 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 debate on the greatest golfer of all time. Tiger holds three U.S. Amateur Championships to Jack’s two, while Jack holds eighteen Major Championships to Tiger’s fifteen, but Tiger won eighty-two tour events to Jack’s seventy-three. Some may point to Jack’s overall record at the majors (Nicklaus finished in the top five fifty-six times, while Tiger recorded thirty-three Top-5 finishes). And some will say that Tiger had to face much deeper fields throughout his career than did Jack. Who is the greatest football player of all time–Tom Brady, Lawrence Taylor or Jim Brown? The greatest pitcher—Seaver or Koufax? Or the greatest hitter—Ruth, Aaron, Mays or Ted Williams?

What Tiger has done is nothing less than remarkable, and while he may have fallen just short of his ultimate goal all those years ago, he has allowed us to witness golf history in the making—and hopefully there is a little bit more in the tank.

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