And while it's hard to argue with this instant-analysis, I always like to take this discussion a little deeper, and stir the pot a bit by throwing out a few more names that I think at least belong in the discussion. But rather than tackle it in-depth that morning (because we were, in fact, there to study the Bible, not discuss golf!), I waited until I got home (and by "home" I may or may not mean "the office") to put together the following, which I think maybe is worth sharing:
It all really comes down to how you define "greatest golfer." On Friday, I contended that Ben Hogan at least belongs in the discussion. And I presented the attached photo spread of all the golfers I believe you can at least make an argument for (though Arnie is mostly in there on sentimental terms, for all he did to grow and popularize the game). We talked a bit about Young Tom Morris, who has one of the most amazing stories in golf history. (You can read my take on it HERE.)(And HERE is a great book about Old and Young Tom.)
Attached are three charts from Wikipedia, showing career-long performance in the majors for Tiger, Jack, and Hogan (wins in green; top-10s in yellow), followed by a brief evaluation (by me). Each chart (click to enlarge) shows something unprecedented and distinctive about the respective golfer.
Clearly, Tiger's claim to the greatest golfer title lies primarily in that four-year stretch from 1999-2002, in which he won seven majors, some by amazing margins, such as his 15-stroke U.S. Open victory in 2000. This is almost inarguably the single most dominating performance ever in golf. During that time he won seven of 11 majors, from the 1999 PGA to the 2002 U.S. Open. And an incredible five of six if you stop with the 2001 Masters. Add in all those green boxes in the 2005-08 stretch, and you have a very, very strong case for greatest golfer ever. Certainly that stretch surrounding the "Tiger Slam" from the 2000 U.S. Open to 2001 Masters belongs at the very top of the charts.
Jack's claim lies primarily in his extended greatness and consistency over time. In addition to his 18 major victories, Nicklaus also had 19 runner-up finishes in majors. He never had quite as dominating a run as Tiger has had, but if you look at that entire 1970s block you see he almost never finished out of the top 10. And rarely out of the top 5! No one approaches Jack's consistency in this regard. He also did this in the time of Arnold Palmer (7 majors), Gary Player (9), Lee Trevino (6), Tom Watson (8), and other Hall of Fame caliber golfers. (Jack finished second in majors to Watson and Trevino four times each!) An interesting discussion can be had about the "lack" of other great golfers in Tiger's era; really only Phil Mickelson, with four major wins, approaches the level of greatness that Nicklaus faced in multiple opponents. The question is, did so few other great golfers emerge because Tiger was that dominant? Or was Tiger helped by the lack of golfers rising up to consistently challenge him. I don't think there's a clear answer, but I think it's a little of both. (I also think it's fair to say that the "top 10" golfers were stronger in Nicklaus's day, but the "top 100" are a lot stronger today, in the Tiger era.) If you add Jack's grace and legendary sportsmanship into the mix (which makes Tiger look like a real jerk by comparison), it's no wonder that Jack will still be considered the "greatest" by many even if Tiger does one day surpass his majors total.