Put Tiger Up There With Nicklaus And Jones

By Mike Kern
Updated: August 14, 2007

TULSA, Okla. – Before Jack Nicklaus, there was Bobby Jones, much as before Hank Aaron, there was Babe Ruth.

Like Ruth, Jones did his thing some some eight decades ago, as part of the so-called Golden Age. And he, too, became larger than life in the game he played, every bit as renowned.

From 1923 to 1930, he won 13 national championships. Back then they weren’t called majors. There wasn’t even a Masters tournament until Jones created it in 1934.

And since he was an amateur he couldn’t compete in the PGA Championship. So the four events that drove him were the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs.

And once he managed to win all four in the same year, 1930, he walked away at the age of 28. So much for the history lesson.

The point is, that’s the ghost Nicklaus chased. Depending on whether you count his two U.S. Amateur titles, Nicklaus either caught Jones at the 1973 PGA, or the 1975 Masters. Then he went on to set the bar at 18 professional majors, a number Tiger posted on his bedroom wall growing up in California. Nicklaus, of course, has since stopped counting his Amateurs, mostly because Tiger won three.

“When I first started my career, 18 seemed a long way away,” said Tiger. “Even now that I’m at 13, it’s still a long way away. It takes time. You can’t get it done in 1 year. It took Jack 20-plus. I hope one day to surpass [him].”

Even to the casual fan, the 18 has become perhaps the sports record to chart, now that Barry Bonds has passed Aaron on the home-run list. It might just be golf, but Tiger transcends all that; just check ESPN’s “Who’s Now” poll that Woods won.

When Tiger’s involved, people tune in. It’s as simple as that. Doesn’t make a difference if it’s the PGA or the Tucson Open, it’s a fact: He moves the needle.

At this point, it’s all about posterity. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of his sport, he’s on it, with Nicklaus and Jones. You can fill out the foursome with Ben Hogan, or Sam Snead if you prefer. But the top trio isn’t going anywhere. It’s only a matter of who goes down as No. 1.

Once, it was Jones. And it stayed that way until Nicklaus came along. Now, barring an accident, the crown is again in the process of being passed.

“Any time you’re mentioned in a conversation with Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus, it just makes you understand how nice a run you’re having,” Tiger said. “I could not have asked for a better start to my career. If you’d asked me 12 years ago would I have this many, I’d say, ‘No way.’ I’ve exceeded my expectations. I’m certainly not against that.”

It’s not if anymore, merely when. And that’s been the reality for several years now.

Nicklaus was 35 when he won his 13th major as a pro. He won his last at age 46, in his 57th professional major. Tiger turns 32 on Dec. 30. This PGA was his 44th major, and 13th championship. Any way you slice it, he’s well ahead of Jack’s pace, and for the time being, he is at least even with Jones.

Tiger figures to have another good decade or so left in him, especially considering the way he takes care of himself physically and mentally. In 11 years out here, he’s averaged just more than one major win a year. If he averages a little under one a year for the next 10, that would get him past Jack with room to spare. Assuming he doesn’t lose interest. But why would he possibly do that when it comes to the one mountain that consumes him?

The U.S. Open comes to Merion in 2013. What are the odds he’s going for either 18 or 19 by then? That’s 22 majors from now. Think Tiger has five or six in him over that stretch? Keep in mind that folks in his profession generally don’t reach their peak until their early- to mid-30s?

He has won 29.5 percent of his professional majors to this point – even after winning only won once this year, after winning a pair in each of the previous two.

Of course, the moment Tiger slips even a bit, everyone wants to be the first to tell you it’s over. And one day, that might be right. But Tiger has continued to win after he turned 30, he has continued to win after he got married, and now he has continued to win after the birth of his first child. It’s about time somebody came up with better arguments.

When Tiger wins his 14th, it will give him as many as Snead and Arnold Palmer combined. Digest that for a moment.

It’s inexorable, really. Destiny. Whether it jives with what some old-schoolers think about it or not. Just as at some point, it must have became clear that Nicklaus was going to leave Jones in his wake. You can’t prevent the truly greatest from playing through.

Just as someday, somehow, another will inevitably be stalking Tiger’s legacy.

We’ll never know what would have happened, had Jones turned pro or kept playing until he was an old man. Just as we’ll never know what might have happened had Nicklaus not had to deal with the likes of Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson, to name but three.

What we do know is, Jones set the standard, and Nicklaus surpassed Jones. Insurmountably, it seemed. But these days we know better.