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.
Ben Hogan is, hands down, the most fascinating golfer of all time. More books have been written about him than any other golfer, probably by a wide margin. But does he have a case to make for being the "greatest"? I think he belongs in the discussion, but only if you narrow things down to a shorter period of time -- and perhaps give him a few points for the "what if?" factor. Look at the period between 1948 and 1953: Hogan won an astonishing EIGHT major titles in just 12 tries! Eleven tries if you start counting with the 1948 U.S. Open. That's a winning percentage (8 of 11) of 72.7! In Tiger's best 11-tournament majors stretch he won 7 times.
Of course, all those "DNPs" (Did Not Play) in Hogan's chart bear mentioning. At the very beginning of the 1949 season, Hogan was nearly killed when the car he and his wife were driving in collided head-on with a Greyhound bus on a foggy road (the bus had crossed the center line). He barely survived his injuries, AND developed blood clots in his legs during his hospital stay, which nearly killed him again. To prevent more clots from traveling to his heart and lungs, doctors tied off a bunch of veins in his legs. For a while, doctors thought he might never walk again, let alone play golf. The fact that he was able to return to play golf in 1950 was miraculous. That he WON the U.S. Open that year almost defies description. Because of the poor circulation in his legs, Hogan had trouble walking the rest of his life, and played golf with his legs heavily wrapped. That's why he played such a limited schedule after the accident and never played in the PGA Championship again. The PGA was match play back then, which meant many more holes of golf (often 36 in a day) than a standard tournament. He just couldn't meet the physical challenge. And American golfers in those days did not routinely play in the British Open. It was expensive and time-consuming to go there, and the prize money (comparatively a pittance compared to today), just didn't make it worthwhile. But Hogan went over there once, mostly because everybody kept telling him he should, and he won! That was in 1953, of course, the year he won all three majors he played in. Playing in the PGA to round out the "Grand Slam" was not an option that year, as the British Open and PGA actually overlapped slightly. Plus, the concept of the "modern grand slam" didn't really emerge until Arnold Palmer set his sights on it in the early 1960s.
So "what if" the accident hadn't happened? Hogan had just perfected his swing and figured out how to win the "big ones" when that happened. It could be argued that the accident, and "playing hurt," actually sharpened his focus and deepened his desire to win. That's possible, but I think both those things were well-established in Hogan before the accident. And "what if" WWII hadn't disrupted his career and the Tour? It's all speculation of course -- just as you could also say "what if" Tiger's life hadn't imploded? And "what if" he didn't have all those knee problems? As is so often the case, only God knows.
NOTE: Bobby Jones clearly belongs in this discussion, as well, though it's especially difficult to compare his accomplishments to modern golfers since he remained an amateur his entire career. Many of his 14 "majors" were U.S. and British Amateur championships -- which were much more prestigious in their day because so many top golfers never turned pro. (If you count the U.S. Amateur, which used to be routine, Jack has 20 majors to Tiger's 17.)
And Walter Hagen should not be overlooked, either. Officially he has 11 major professional championships. However, a strong case can be made that he should be credited with 16! In addition to the tournaments we now consider majors, he also won the Western Open five times, which was considered a "major" victory in those days. Hagen never won the Masters, but it wasn't even founded, let alone considered a "major," until 1934, five years after Hagen won his last official major, the 1929 British Open.