Tiger and the Bear – Who’s the GOAT?

Win at Augusta spurs Woods to believe quest possible

It did not take long after the final putt was holed at Augusta National and Tiger Woods claimed his 5th green jacket and 15th major championship for the golf chorus to put back into motion the idea that the record of 18 major triumphs by Jack Nicklaus is once again back in play to be surpassed.

When Woods last won a major in ’08 — winning an epic US Open — it was his 14th major and that was accomplished when just 32 years old. For many people, including Nicklaus himself, the issue was not “if” but “when” Tiger would break Jack’s long time record.

During the near 11 years between major victories the sense from many was that the 43-year-old version of Tiger Woods was nowhere near the same player he once was. That assessment has now changed. Woods played smart patient golf throughout the Sunday final round at The Masters and the victory marked the first time he came from behind to earn a major win.

Winning a major is no small accomplishment and the Woods success spawned a range of articles saying the comeback was the greatest in golf. Those doing so must have had a severe case of amnesia. Somehow forgetting the near death situation endured by Ben Hogan and his miraculous return to top tier form in the early 1950s.

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Supplanting Nicklaus at 18 majors is no small feat. Woods did say after Augusta that he still considers attaining a tie or breaking the record as doable.

“I always thought it was possible, if I had everything go my way, “Woods said in an interview with streaming service GOLFTV. “It took him an entire career to get to 18, so now that I’ve had another extension to my career — one that I didn’t think I had a couple of years ago — if I do things correctly and everything falls my way, yeah, it’s a possibility.”

Woods added, “I’m never going to say it’s not. Except for a couple of years ago when couldn’t walk. Now, I just need to have a lot of things go my way, and who’s to say that it will or will not happen? That what the future holds, I don’t know. The only thing I can promise you is this: that I will be prepared.”

Far too often there’s a rush to judgement of modern athletes elevating them beyond their predecessors. The Nicklaus record is the Mount Everest in golf for a number of good reasons.

Tiger and the Bear – Who’s the GOAT?
Jack NICKLAUS (USA) during second round US Masters 2004,Augusta National, Augusta, Georgia, USA. (Matthew Harris / TGPL)

Yes, people are aware of the 18 majors Jack won but far too often forgotten is that he came in second an amazing 19 times. Jack also finished in the top five 56 times and the top ten 73 times.  Woods has seven runner-ups, 32 top five and 40 top ten finishes respectively.

Now, to be fair Jack’s record includes participating in 164 majors compared to Tiger’s 81 played through this year’s Masters. But, to examine the Nicklaus record let’s put into context that upon winning his 6th Masters at age 46 in 1986 the Golden Bear would go on to play 59 majors before concluding his participation in the game’s ultimate events. In that time frame Jack would garner only four top tens — with three occurring at Augusta.

In addition, Nicklaus would miss the cut 23 times during that period. Why is this important? Father time eroded the considerable abilities of Nicklaus and if one simply assessed what Jack had done through 1986 his overall record for consistency in the majors would be even more impressive than it is already.

Woods more than anyone knows being able to get near the magic number of 18 requires his most immediate attention. Given the number of surgeries Woods has endured and the push from younger competitors eager to claim their fair share of titles the probability of Tiger eclipsing Jack’s record is doable but still remains doubtful.

There are those who say even if Woods does not win another major that he is truly golf’s GOAT — greatest of all time. That assertion is clearly debatable. Keep this mind, from the 1970 to 1978 Open Championship — a total of 33 straight majors — Nicklaus was out of the top ten only three times! Talk about always being a presence. Combine Jack’s 1st and 2nd place finishes — a total of 37 majors — and that’s truly mind-boggling.

Tiger and the Bear – Who’s the GOAT?
Woods will be back next year to chase a sixth green jacket (Matt Slocum/AP)

On the flip side the strongest arguments for Tiger are the following:

*Held all four major titles simultaneously between ’01-’02 — hence called The Tiger Slam.

*Wins the US Open by record 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000.

*Wins first major at Augusta as youngest champion ever, sets new tournament record and wins by record 12 shots.

*Wins Open Championship at The Old Course at St. Andrews in 2000 — never has his ball find one of the numerous bunkers and wins by eight strokes.

*Youngest ever to win the career grand slam by age 24.

*Out of 351 starts, Woods won 81 times — an astounding winning percentage of 23%.

Few can reasonably argue the period between Tiger’s first Masters win in 1997 and his triumph at the 2008 US Open is arguably the finest stretch of golf ever played. In that period Wood won 14 majors and 65 wins on the PGA Tour.

The only golfer who can surpass what Woods did is the legendary Bob Jones — winning 13 majors in seven years — including his tour de force achievement in securing the Grand Slam in 1930. Clearly, Jones benefited from being an amateur and racking up wins against far lesser quality depths of players in both the US and British Amateur Championships respectively. Ben Hogan had a stellar series of years in the 1950s following his return from a near fatal car accident. However, his inability to play more than an abbreviated schedule because of physical limitations gives Woods the clear nod for his more substantive accomplishments.

Where Woods is lacking is in the period of nearly 11 years following the triumph at Torrey Pines in ’08 and his remarkable victory at The Masters. Tiger’s marital infidelities coupled with several needed surgeries and the never to be forgotten police mug shot courtesy of being found passed out at the wheel of his vehicle overcome with excess pain killer medicines. One can only speculate what the cumulative Woods record would be if those combination of issues had not happened. The renowned late golf writer Dan Jenkins was famous for saying only two things could stop Woods from surpassing Nicklaus — a bad marriage and injuries. The ever astute Jenkins, thus far, was right on both accounts.

With the PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course we will see a Tiger return to competitive play for the first time since his epic win at Augusta. What will he do is clearly a matter of speculation — from those believing Woods can continue his winning ways to those wondering how Woods will handle a layout playing especially long with thick dense rough given the zany spring weather that’s happened in the greater New York City metro area.

The Nicklaus record of consistency is clearly present career wise but the Golden Bear literally ran out of gas after his two major win season in 1980. Only two additional PGA Tour wins followed in the six years leading up to his earth shattering win in 1986 at Augusta. That record 6th green jacket was the final win for Jack.

Tiger and the Bear – Who’s the GOAT?
Last goodbye?Not quite (he bowed out after two rounds at the 2005 Open Championship) but Jack NICKLAUS (US) waves to the crowds standing on the famous Swilken Bridge on the 18th fairway during the Open Championship 2000,St Andrews Old Course,St Andrews,Fife,Scotland. (Matthew Harris / TGPL)

For Tiger to simply tie the Golden Bear he would need to set a new record for most major wins in his 40s. Taking Tiger at his word that he will be “prepared” it’s also fair to say others at the very top of the golf pecking order will also be ready. The likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy are not going to be easily deterred from seeking additional major championship hardware.

Joe LaCava, Tiger’s caddie, was asked about the chase for the Nicklaus record and his answer was completely spot on — the focus needs to be on winning the 16th major first before getting all worked up on passing Jack.

As of now — the GOAT still rests with Nicklaus. But any person betting against Tiger Woods had best realize the sheer tenacity he has shown in going beyond what many ever thought possible. Bethpage lies immediately ahead and Pebble Beach and the US Open are just around the corner in June. Woods has won previously at both venues. Should he somehow push himself into contention the crowd roars egging him on will be at ear splitting volume generated. 

The battle resumes on Long Island next week with a resolute Tiger eager to inch ever closer to a Bear that indeed growled ferociously. One thing for sure the game of golf clearly is rejuvenated by the discussion. How will matters play out?

We shall soon see at Bethpage.