The best golfer of them all
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods lead the all-time Majors list, but are they better than Bobby Jones was?
As a new season looms and Tiger Woods nudges his way towards what were originally said to be the untouchable heights scaled by Jack Nicklaus, the inevitable questions about who is the best gets trotted out into the conversation at every 19th hole.
Cross-generation comparisons in sport are generally of little real value, except perhaps to certain liquor companies whose various products help fuel the fires of argument.
That said, Woods is second on the all-time Majors winners’ list, with Nicklaus on 18 wins ahead of him. There are no active players in touching distance of Woods, though Mickelson (US Open) Spieth (USPGA) and McIlroy (Masters) are missing one Major each to complete a career Grand Slam and join an elite group of five other players.
The question is, should any player in the top 10 be considered the best and, if yes, by what criteria should their achievements be judged? The debate needs to be understood in the context that the system evaluates a player’s career, at this level, primarily based upon performance in the four Majors.
• The Open Championship, often referred to as the British Open to differentiate it from its US namesake;
• The Masters, which is the youngest of the Majors and originally an invitational and not an open, though there are now various automatic invites in various categories;
• The USPGA, which acronym stands for the US Professional Golfers Association’s championship and therefore also not an open in that amateur golfers are expressly excluded. This condition is not peculiar to the USPGA and is true for all the other national PGA championships, which are expressly for professionals; and
• The US Open, the second-oldest of the Majors.
As an amateur, Bobby Jones won seven of the acknowledged professional Majors and rounded off his career in 1930, by completing the “Impregnable Quadrilateral” by winning both opens and both amateur titles.
Jones never played in the USPGA, then a matchplay event and a format in which he excelled. There was no Masters, as Jones himself would create this tournament, and play in a handful of them, after his official retirement from competitive golf in 1930.
But Jones did also win amateur “Majors” in the form of six US and British amateur titles — 13 Majors?
To make a fair comparison with Jones’ record, we can revise the records of the top three on the “Jones principle” (version 1).
The result would be that Nicklaus’ career record could now include his two US Amateur titles, but no USPGA or Masters titles, leaving a revised tally of 9: three Open Championships, two US Amateur titles and four US Opens.
Woods gets to bank three US amateur titles, three opens and three US Opens — 9.
Hagen won five USPGA Championships and therefore his career total goes from 11 wins to 6.
OK, so you say that the inclusion of amateur titles is unfair and that we should use the professional Major titles, either in Jones’ playing era or those in which he was eligible to play?
This would then leave the opens of Britain and the US eligible for inclusion and calculating Major wins on the Jones’ Principle (version 2), using Open Championship and US Open wins, the top six on the log, in alphabetical order, now looks like this:
Jones — 7
Nicklaus — 7
Vardon — 7
Hagen — 6
Watson — 6
Woods — 6
There is balance, and almost poetic justice, in a list that uses results in the British and US Opens as the benchmark for golfing immortality and it also underlines the historical golfing significance of Jones’ remarkable career.