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Just The Sports: Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus

Just The Sports

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus

Comparing athletes across eras is always a difficult task, but with golfers (for this post I consider golfers to be athletes) it is even more arduous. Not only do golfers of different generations not play against each other or against the same opponents, but unlike sports like basketball and football where the playing dimensions are uniform across the board and remain so for years, golf courses change on a yearly basis. Hell, the placement of the holes changes daily during tournaments. Even so, there is one commonly agreed upon basis for determining greatness and that is how well an athlete does in relation to his or her peers. With that in mind and with debate growing after Tiger's last major win, I wanted to see how his dominance in major wins by standard deviations compares to the dominance Jack Nicklaus exhibited in his golfing heydays. Majors are the most important tournaments in the PGA and a person who dominates those certainly deserves to be called the greatest golfer ever.

Originally, I wanted to compare Jack's first twelve major wins to Tiger's, but I was unable to do so because I could not find the 1966 results of the Open Championship so I replaced that major with his 1975 Majors victory. I do not think doing so skewed my results at all.

The first thing I wanted to look at is how bunched together their competitors were during these major tournaments. If the average standard deviation of the field's scoring for the respective players' twelve major wins was high, then I would know there was a lot of dilution and that the fields were not stiff competition. The standard deviation for scoring for Jack's major wins, at least the twelve I looked at, was 5.9 strokes and the standard deviation for Tiger's major wins was 5.7 strokes so if anything, Tiger has been facing a slightly more equal field in terms of talent. There was no real advantage or disadvantage there for either golfer.

Now for the meaty part, the part you've been waiting for. In order to gauge just how much better the golfers were than their opponents during these majors, I looked at how many standard deviations they were above the average and then I averaged those standard deviations together. What I found is that Tiger Woods has been an average of 2.8 standard deviations above the average score for his major wins and Jack Nicklaus was an average of 2.3 standard deviations above the average score for his respective major wins (at least 12 of them). Taking the average standard deviation during Jack's major wins of 5.9, this .5 standard deviation margin means that Tiger has been 2.95 strokes better in his wins than Jack was. Using Tiger's aforementioned 5.7 average standard deviation, Tiger has been 2.85 strokes better.

Keep in mind that neither of those numbers encompasses the two golfers' entire careers and Jack may have blown out the competition in his other major wins while Tiger will barely eke by in his other major victories. Of course, if Tiger breaks Jack's major record, he should be crowned as the game's best golfer ever, but as of right now, he has certainly been more dominant than Jack.

The most impressive performance of either golfer belongs to Tiger Woods when he won the 2000 US Open by fifteen strokes and was an astounding 4.1 standard deviations better than the average score. Jack's best major win (of the ones I looked at) came in the 1965 Masters when he won by nine strokes and was 3.5 standard deviations better than the average score.


  • I enjoyed reading your assessment of Woods vs. Nicklaus. It was easy to follow. thanks :)

    By Blogger dusty, at 8:46 AM  

  • You can compare records all you want, without a head to head competition with the same equipment and course conditions we'll never know who's the best ever. So by comparing records you're just going to give it to Tiger??? That's so naive. Jack was in a world of his own just like Tiger and guess what, Jack may be the best of all time. If they had gone head to head,maybe Tiger would've lost 70% of the time to Jack,who knows. Records aren't a way of knowing who would've been better,there is ABSOLUTELY no way of knowing something like this. They're both great and that's that. Also if Jack had Tiger on his tale, you'ld better believe that Jack would've spent less time with his family of 5 in order to protect his record. Jack's major wins would've been in the 20's. Good thing for the Nicklaus family that he didn't have to do that.BUT JACK HAD IT IN HIM TO KEEP AHEAD OF ANYONE IN HIS WAY. 18 majors was all he needed back then. So do you understand why records don't mean much for this comparison?? HELLO, they never played each other folks.

    By Blogger mike, at 5:34 PM  

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