Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods: Let’s take a major dive into the numbers

Tiger Woods turned 48 in late December.

Jack Nicklaus flips those numbers and turns 84 Monday.

While other immortals — Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen among them — make everyone’s top-10 list of best-ever golfers, Jack and Tiger (or Tiger and Jack) sit 1-2 on practically everyone’s list.

Though their careers indeed overlapped, it was at the beginning of Tiger’s PGA Tour career and in the ceremonial stage of Jack’s — he was 56 when Tiger turned pro in 1996. Fairly contested head-to-head comparisons weren’t possible, so we’re left with historical numbers.

Perhaps the fairest way to measure the two golfing giants is to compare their major-championship achievements, as professionals, up to their 48th birthday. For Jack, that represents 1962-87; for Tiger it’s 1997-2023.

You want durability? From the ages of 22 to 58, Nicklaus didn’t sit out a major championship. In fact, after turning 50 in 1990, he also teed it up in 35 of the next 36 senior majors (he won eight of them, by the way).

A laundry list of health issues has sidelined Tiger for 19 majors, including eight of the last 12. His streak of 46 straight (as a pro) famously ended after he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a damaged leg.

When Tiger won his 14th major, at the 2008 U.S. Open, he was just 33, at the peak of his game and, frankly, aside from the leg issue he appeared to still be peaking. 

Everyone with working eyeballs assumed he’d blow past Jack’s 18, go deep into the 20s and maybe even threaten 30 majors. Or beyond.

Jack was also relatively young — 35 — when he won his 14th in 1975, but he won just one more before turning 40.

That’s right, Nicklaus finished either first or second in more than a third (36%) of his majors through age 48.

Some of Nicklaus’ most memorable majors were those where he was beaten late — by Lee Trevino and Tom Watson at the British Open, by Watson at the U.S. Open and Masters, by Hal Sutton at the PGA.

Tiger’s most consequential runner-up came at the 2009 PGA Championship, when the unlikely figure of Y.E. Yang became the first golfer to overtake Tiger on the Sunday of a major. Three months later came Tiger’s infamous crash — it involved a fire hydrant and eventually a doomed marriage.

Nicklaus’ first top five in a major was a win (1962 U.S. Open). So was his last (1986 Masters). He did finish sixth in two more — the Masters in 1990 and again in 1998, at age 58, when he was actually within two of the lead through 15 holes on Sunday.

Tiger, in his last year as an amateur, missed the cut at the 1996 Masters, and didn’t miss another major cut until the 2006 U.S. Open. 

Nicklaus, who missed just one cut in all of the 1970s, didn’t miss another until 1985. That run included the 1981 British Open, where he’d dug quite a hole for himself at Royal St. George’s.

The day before that ’81 Open began, Nicklaus’ 18-year-old son, Steve, had been arrested for drunk driving in Columbus, Ohio — on the Jack Nicklaus Freeway, by the way. Jack shot 83 on Thursday and it appeared he’d be heading home Friday evening to deal with things.

The lone WD on the Nicklaus timeline came at the ’83 Masters, when back spasms before the second round sent him home to North Palm Beach.

Tiger’s two WDs are very recent — the 2022 PGA and ’23 Masters, when he was done in by the aftereffects of his 2021 car crash in Los Angeles.

Gideon Canice

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