Best Golfer Ever? Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus: But Who is Next?

DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 03: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods pose on the tenth tee during a skins game prior to the start of the Memorial Tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 3, 2009 in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 03: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods pose on the tenth tee during a skins game prior to the start of the Memorial Tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 3, 2009 in Dublin, Ohio. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images) /

The internet is awash with retrospective pieces on “Jack Nicklaus vs. Tiger Woods: Who’s the Greatest of All-Time?” To me, the more interesting question is who is #3?

Let us start with the premise that, whether you think Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is the best ever, you are both right and wrong. The arguments for each are compelling. I won’t relitigate them here, but there is no wrong answer. I honestly think neither Jack nor Tiger even knows the answer. Both could probably be convinced it’s them or the other guy depending on the criteria used.

Certainly, no one is wrong in their opinion. Jack and Tiger are in their own universe. They are twin stars. The only way to separate them would be for Tiger Woods to win four more Majors. That would probably silence most of the Jack supporters. I love Tiger, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

So let’s agree there are no wrong answers to the Jack vs. Tiger conundrum.

More from Pro Golf Now

But what about #3? Who is the “Best of the Rest?”

For purposes here, I’m arbitrarily making the cut for the “Next Best” at seven Major victories to define the finalists. In doing so, I’ve cut the field to the following nine names:

Finalists (Major Wins):

Walter Hagen (11)

Ben Hogan (9)

Gary Player (9)

Tom Watson (8)

Bobby Jones (7)

Arnold Palmer (7)

Gene Sarazen (7)

Sam Snead (7)

Harry Vardon (7)

One statistic gets overlooked when comparing the all-time best in golf – longevity. Specifically, the time between the first Major win and the last. As much as any other statistical measure, these dates frame the period of a golfer’s career when they achieved greatness and when that high plateau began to descend back to average.

Jack has 24 years between his first and last Major wins. Tiger Woods currently has 22 years between his.

Can you believe Palmer’s peak only lasted six years? In fact, Hogan, Watson, Snead, and Jones all had peaks that lasted fewer than 10 years. That leaves Hagen, Vardon, Sarazen, and Player. Each had peaks that lasted between 13-19 years.

To further cull the herd, I’m going to cut Sarazen and Vardon. Yes, Harry invented the modern grip and won six British Opens. And yes, Sarazen invented the modern sand wedge and achieved the career Grand Slam. They are both legends.

Vardon was especially hindered by the fact that the Masters and PGA didn’t exist in his era and World War One prevented him from competing in five British Opens and two U.S. Opens in the prime of his career. Alas, those are the breaks.

The Squire played in an era with Jones and Hagen. Among that group, I think we’d all place Sarazen at the back. It’s not fair. He had a better career than Jones, but Bobby had1930 and founded Augusta. That’s a big hurdle for little Gene to clear. And Hagen had 11 Major wins to Sarazen’s seven.

So that leaves us with Hagen and Gary Player.

Hagen is most often thought of as the best match player to ever tee it up. He won a record five PGA Championships when that tournament was a match play event. But he won four British Opens, too. And two U.S. Opens. The Masters wasn’t founded until well after his game (and his liver, if stories of his prodigious partying are to be believed) were past their prime.

Still, during the 1920s, Walter Hagen was a sporting god. Bobby Jones was the Platonic ideal of the Gentleman Golfer during that time, but Hagen was the bad-boy entertainer everyone wanted to be around; carousing, drinking, gambling…and winning.

That stipulated, Hagen doesn’t get my vote for 3rd Best Golfer of All-Time. To my surprise, after looking at the records and longevity of golf’s greatest, I believe Gary Player is right behind Jack and Tiger Woods.

I wasn’t expecting this result when I started to really look at the records of the players. I thought Palmer would be an obvious choice. He ushered in the modern game. But his time between first and last Major wins was a paltry six years. After that, I thought Watson, Hogan, Vardon, Trevino, or Bobby Jones. Hagen and Byron Nelson were also on my radar.

But not Gary Player.

However, Player is one of only five players to win the modern career Grand Slam – Tiger, Jack, Sarazen, and Hogan being the others. Gary Player has an amazingly balanced list of Major victories. He won the U.S. Open once but every other Major he won multiple times. He also did it over a 19-year career peak, winning a Major in three different decades.

The numbers don’t lie. I’m as surprised as you are. Gary Player is probably the best golfer behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the history of the game.

Next. Check out the ProGolf Now Virtual 2020 Masters!. dark

So next time you are chatting about the greatest ever, make the conversation a little more interesting by conceding Jack and Tiger are bother unassailably correct answers. But the real question is who’s next on the list.