Comparing great athletes across generations is often an entertaining conversation. No such discussion has garnered more attention than comparisons of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Comparing the two greatest golfers in the past 50 years is like asking a Chicago Bears fan whether Walter Payton or Gale Sayers was the better running back. Comparisons are complicated by improvements in equipment, changes in training techniques, and differences in the strength of each golfer’s competition. My comparison uses the World Golf Rankings methodology and leaves no doubt that Jack Nicklaus’ record in major championships is superior to Tiger’s, at the same point in their careers.
The World Golf Rankings award 100 points to a golfer who wins a major tournament, 60 points for second place, 40 for third, 30 for fourth and 24 and 20 points for fifth and sixth place finishes. The points drop steeply with rank order finish with 1.5 points awarded to any golfer who made the cut and finished 60th or lower in the tournament. This system rewards winning and competing for a championship more than consistent top ten finishes. For example a golfer who wins one of the major championships but misses the cut at the other three earns more points for the year than a golfer who finished fifth in all four majors.
Jack Nicklaus won his first major at the 1962 U.S. Open and Tiger Woods won his first at the 1997 Masters, 35 years later. Since then Tiger has played in 57 major championships (and missed four due to injuries). Over that span Woods earned 33.8 points per major played, a remarkable record but far less than Nicklaus’ 45.3 points per major over a comparable span of 57 tournaments. In other words Nicklaus averaged better than a third place finish in majors over nearly 15 years, using a scoring system that penalizes performances that are less than spectacular.
The World Golf Rankings takes a weighted average of the past eight major championships (over two years). The following chart illustrates the difference in the rankings of Nicklaus and Woods in major championships over the fifteen years after they each won their first major. The difference in rankings is presented as the percentage of the highest possible ranking (eight straight major championships). Nicklaus had a higher ranking in majors over 82% of their overlapping careers. The exceptions are that Woods’ performance in 2000-2003 was better than Nicklaus’ record in 1965-1968, and again in 2008-2009 compared to Nicklaus in 1973-1974.
In the years following this chart, Nicklaus would go on win four of the next 40 majors he played culminating in the 1986 Masters. Even in this second half of his career Nicklaus averaged 27.6 points per major championship played. Tiger’s disappointing performance at the Masters this weekend makes it seem doubtful that he will tie or break Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major championships (Tiger has 14). Woods has earned 18.6 points, on average, in the eleven major tournaments he has played since 2009.
Woods is one of the greatest golfers of all time and may again become the best player in the world. When evaluating performances on the biggest stages against the best competition, Jack Nicklaus from 1962 to 1977 was better than Tiger Woods from 1997 to 2012, with few exceptions.