- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — If Tiger Woods wins this week’s 87th PGA Championship, he will deserve the title of greatest golfer in history.

No doubt Jack Nicklaus proponents instantly will cry foul at such a notion, pointing to the seven-majors gap between Nicklaus (18) and Woods (11 with a victory) on the game’s all-time Slam leader board. How, they will ask, can anyone take Woods over a man with more than a third as many majors?

The rationale is similar to that which routinely prompts seamheads to rank the likes of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn and Roger Clemens over career victory leader Cy Young (511-316). Rating a pitcher or a golfer solely in terms of victories is an oversimplification of the issue. With a pitcher, there are other considerations — winning percentage, ERA, etc.

The same is true for golfers. And with all apologies to the Golden Bear, Woods is pure platinum.

If Woods triumphs this week at Baltusrol, he will have twice accomplished what only one other man has managed once — winning three of golf’s four professional majors in the same season. Ben Hogan did it in 1953, when he mated a victory in his only British Open appearance (Carnoustie) with victories at the Masters and U.S. Open. And Bobby Jones completed the latter-day Grand Slam (U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs) at Merion in 1930 before the PGA was considered a major and before giving us the Masters.

Aside from those two seasons and Woods’ trifecta of 2000, the only other season belonging in the game’s otherworldly pantheon would be Byron Nelson’s dominating 1945, when his record 18 victories included an immortal run of 11 consecutive wins. That means that should Woods win this week, he would have posted two of golf’s five greatest seasons in the span of just five years and before his 30th birthday. Such an epic accomplishment leaves probability stuttering.

“Tiger is a wonderful player,” Nicklaus said yesterday. “I mean, how do you compare what he’s doing, because nobody has ever done what he’s doing? Certainly I didn’t. And nobody else that you can go back and look at has done anything like this.”

As Nicklaus went on to point out gracefully, Tiger has yet to face the same caliber of elite rivals that defined his era. It’s true Woods has done his damage against top competitors few would mistake for a Player, Watson or Trevino. That said, the modern PGA Tour is far deeper, and world No.2 Vijay Singh is nobody’s slouch.

And it’s also important to remember that Trevino didn’t win his first major until Nicklaus was 28. Watson didn’t arrive on the scene until the Golden Bear was 33. Those rivals could be in the offing for the 29-year-old Woods. In the meantime, it’s ludicrous to handicap Tiger’s success because of the perceived shortcomings of his rivals.

Frankly, one must think that Tiger’s play has, to a large degree, dictated how the rest of the golf world is perceived. The game has some phenomenal talents who have had their potential legacies muted by Woods’ brilliance. He’s that good. Watson was Watson, at least in some measure, because Jack was better about sharing the majors of his era.

“It’s not just [Vijay who might feel under appreciated], I think Retief Goosen might feel that way. Ernie Els might feel that way, as well,” said Colin Montgomerie. “I think it’s just the dominance of Tiger on and off the course. I believe his personality and his charisma are so strong on and off the course that it tends to feel that others aren’t getting a look in, if you like.”

If you compare Woods and Nicklaus through their first 10 major triumphs, there really is no comparison. Woods reached the mark at last month’s British Open in his 42nd major start at age 29. Nicklaus didn’t hit double digits until his 48th start at age 32. Entering the PGA Championship at age 29, Nicklaus had 30 career PGA Tour victories; Woods has 44.

And if you want to talk style points and epic performances, Tiger clearly has already outstripped Nicklaus. Of his 18 major victories, Nicklaus won just two by more than four strokes — the 1965 Masters by nine and the 1980 PGA by seven. And Nicklaus owns a piece of only one major scoring record, sharing the U.S. Open’s low total (272 at Baltusrol in 1980) with Lee Janzen (Baltusrol in 1993) and Woods (Pebble Beach in 2000).

Woods, meanwhile, holds virtually every major scoring record. He won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes at 270 to claim all three tournament scoring records: total score, relation to par (18 under) and victory margin. His comical 15-stroke rout of the field at Pebble Beach gave him a piece of the Open’s low-total record, plus the records for relation to par (12 under) and margin of victory.

His eight-stroke victory at the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews was a modern record for scoring margin and relation to par (19 under). And his performance in 2000 at Valhalla also earned him a share of the PGA’s scoring record in relation to par (18 under) along with Bob May, whom he defeated in the playoff.

Throw in last month’s five-stroke wire-to-wire stroll at St. Andrews, and four of Woods’ 10 majors triumphs have been field thrashings of five strokes or more.

As Nicklaus himself stated yesterday, “[Tiger’s] dominated way beyond how anybody’s ever dominated.”

If dominance equals greatness, nobody who has ever played the game compares to Tiger. And at some point, perhaps with a victory this week, the time will come to stick the superlative “est” in the same sentence with his name. That’s no knock on Nicklaus but rather an acknowledgment of Woods’ transcendence.

We are watching golf’s Jordan, Gretzky and Ruth in the midst of his prime. Enjoy the epic excellence that already makes Woods vs. Nicklaus worth debating.

“I would have loved to have gone head-to-head against him in his prime,” Woods said at the British Open. “We would have had a lot of fun.”

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