Monday, July 24, 2006

Jack of all Trades

Once again I find myself in the position of having to defend the past. I've done it in the case of Rod Laver, I've done if for Boxing and of course countless times for Baseball and now I find that I have to do it in Golf. Tiger Woods won the eleventh "major" of his career yesterday and once again the talk is about how many majors he will win and whether he will become the greatest golfer of all time if he doesn't hold that distinction already. The record for wins in major tournaments is either 18 or 20 (depending on whether you count the US Amateur as a major) and both records are held by the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus.

Jack's numbers speak for themselves. He has 73 career wins on the PGA tour(including his record 18 majors), he won the US Amateur twice, He won majors over 3 decades (his first in '62 and his last in '86) and he played against some of the greatest golfers of all time and managed to lap the field. The list of Jack's opponents literally reads like a who's who of golf. First it was Arnold Palmer, then it was Gary Player, then Lee Trevino, then Tom Watson, then Seve Ballesteros. That group of players alone has 35 major championships among them. They all had the game to dominate any era of golf and they probably would have dominated to a greater degree if not for Jack. Jack finished 2nd 19 times in majors. That is not a testament to him folding under the pressure, that is a testament to the quality of opponents he was facing every week. If Player, Trevino and Watson aren't around, Jack would probably have about 30 major titles to his credit. Jack also played against near greats like Billy Casper, Hubert Green, Julius Boros, Johnny Miller and Ben Crenshaw.

Tiger's plays regularly against only a couple of players who have won multiple majors. Ernie Els (3), Phil Mickelson (3), Vijay Singh (3) and John Daly (2).Phil hadn't won any majors until 2 years ago and John Daly doesn't pose a consistent threat to anyone except the waitresses at Hooters. The competition Tiger faces simply doesn't hold a candle to what Jack had to face in his day. Perhaps Jack didn't play in the "Golden" era of golf (that designation would go the days of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, I suppose), but he certainly played against greatest collection of golfers that the PGA tour has ever had playing at one time. I'm not saying that Jack is a better athlete than Tiger. Today's equipment and training make that a moot point. What I am saying is that sheer numbers are not the only way to measure greatness. Tiger's rivals almost seem to shrink when they see him atop the leader board. For years Phil Mickleson would choke on the final day of majors. David Duval was a major rival of Tiger's in his early years, but has since succumed to a number of injuries. Sergio Garcia was supposed to be a big rival, but has yet to win a major and shoots in the mid 70's on the final day of majors. Jack's opponents relished the opportunity to face him on the final day of a tournament. Lee Trevino and Tom Watson made their reputations by beating Nicklaus during major tournaments.

Some will say that Tiger is so good that his competition simply doesn't stand a chance. That is simply not true. There have two separate stretches of 10 majors in a row where Tiger did not win. That was certainly enough time for one of his rivals to stake a claim as an all time great, but that has not happened. Even when Tiger is not in contention, his rivals have been unable (for the most part) to take advantage of that. Phil, Vijay and Ernie are a cut above the rest of the field, but the record shows that even when Tiger is not winning, they do not have the game to rise much above the rest of the players. Golf commentators have long talked about a true rival for Tiger. Some have come and gone (like Duval), while others have tried and failed to scale the summit that is Tiger Woods. Some commentators have even suggested that Tiger won't have a great rival, but a group of players who push him every week. Jack really had the same thing, only the people pushing every week were the greatest golfers of all time.

Jack was the best of the best, Tiger is the best of the rest. It really is as simple as that.



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