My dad named me after Jack Nicklaus because Nicklaus was the greatest golfer ever to play the game of golf. People often mistake my name, Nick, to be short for Nicholas, but it's short for Nicklaus, and seeing as how obsessed I am with golf, it was a good call on my parents' part. I enjoy telling people my dad named me after the greatest golfer ever to live. In reality, there is a fight among golfers about who is the best player ever, just like the argument between Lebron and Jordan about who is the best, Jordan. There is an argument about whether it's Tiger Woods or Nicklaus, but in my opinion, it's Nicklaus, and it isn’t even close. We measure a lot of the greatest players by how many championships wins they have. For example, Tom Brady is the best quarterback ever because he won 7 freakin super bowls! For golfers, the best measure is majors, especially if you want to measure a more recent golfer with a player from several generations ago. You can’t measure based on World Golf Championships because they weren’t a thing in the Nicklaus era. Instead, the best measurement is Major Championships, in which Nicklaus won a staggering 18 Major championships, 18 FREAKING MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS! I do see that there are some arguments, so let's talk about the other potential GOAT.
Tiger Woods was the only player even close to Jack Nicklaus’ prestige. Tiger was a dominant force in golf in the late 90s and early 2000s. He had the drive to win, and he worked harder than everyone and just had that Tiger mentality. I grew up watching Tiger play and still remember some of his most outstanding achievements and moments. Watching Tiger win the Masters in 2019 was incredible. He is stuck at 15 Major Championships, which is probably more than anyone else will ever win, but it just isn’t enough to give him the title of GOAT. Tiger had the most dominant decade of playing of any athlete, I think, ever. From 1999 to 2009, Tiger was the most dominant athlete ever. However, he could not keep that up. Injuries have played a large part in his life; he has overcome several but being the best golfer of all time means he needs to have a long, drawn-out career, and while he has won tournaments outside that period, there have been years where he hasn’t played at all. He had an incredible comeback in 2018 and 2019 but hasn’t been able to play at all in the last year after injuring his legs in a car crash. Tiger pushed his body too hard, and he achieved greatness; however, because of that push, we saw his body deteriorate, and he wasn’t able to finish out his career correctly. 15 Majors won is no small feat, and I wish he would have won more, and maybe he still will win a couple more, but overtaking 18 majors is extremely unlikely. On the other hand, Nicklaus was able to win on the PGA Tour for over 25 years.
The new modern era of golf is one of high precision, technology, and longer and longer players that come with it. Tiger benefited from this new era of technology. The equipment gets longer and more and more forgiving every single year. If you have access, I will challenge you to hit the clubs Nicklaus used, old persimmon woods. Like his Macgregor Tommy Armour 945W, it is an incredibly different feel than any other driver you have probably ever hit, especially if you are young like me. Tech doesn’t make a great player, but I think you had to be a much more consistent player if you wanted to win a lot back in Nicklaus’ time. To win all of his tournaments, Nicklaus utilized these low-tech clubs and golf balls, which were extraordinarily unforgiving.
Jack Nicklaus had an unrivaled career playing with some of the best golfers of all time. Nicklaus played weekly against Tom Watson, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Billy Casper. He even had to contend with an older Ben Hogan. These players don’t have any equals during Tiger’s era. You could compare Phil, but I don’t think that Phil was ever as good as some of these guys. Hogan, Player, Watson, Palmer, and Trevino all have more Major Wins than Phil. However, all of Hogan’s major wins did come before Nicklaus was a pro. Looking at his competition, they are all legends. For years and years to come, everyone will know Trevino, Watson, Player, and Palmer. Can you say the same about Tiger’s competition?
I don’t see Tiger’s competition in his prime to have been as good as all of the players Nicklaus had to contend with every week. This isn’t even including Seve Ballesteros, who Nicklaus had to contend with towards the end of his career. Nicklaus played against legends every day, Tiger played against great players every day, and I would say Phil will be legendary, but Ernie Els? Rory? Vijay? These guys are great players, no doubt about it, but legends? I just don’t think they are. Tiger is a legend, but who else of his era comes to mind other than Phil? You have to look at this, the number of majors won between the two, and I figured Nicklaus was the GOAT.
In the end, any discussion about who is better across generations is a tough conversation to have. The game has changed over the years; the game has different contenders and different equipment. The only way we can measure two players from different generations in golf is to put them up against each other in the number of major wins. In that category, it's obviously Jack, and by a long shot.