Stories You Should Know: Jack Nicklaus

Greatest Golfer Of All Time: The Case for Jack Nicklaus

This Part 5 of our Series looking at the Greatest Golfer of All Time. You can read our previous posts and arguments for Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead.

We’re not going to spend much time on Jack’s early life. He came from an upper middle class home. His father, Charlie, was a pharmacist and also an exceptional athlete. Charlie played football for Ohio State, was an accomplished tennis player, as well as a scratch golfer. He taught his son the game when Jack was ten at his home course at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. Jack played many sports as a youth, but golf was his best. By 13 years old he won his first Ohio State Junior Title (the first of 5 in a row) and by 17 had qualified for his first United States Open. He would participate in the next 43. Jack won his first U.S. Amateur in 1959 and made the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1960. The golf world was well aware of who Jack Nicklaus was when he battled Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan to the finish as a 20 year old at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in 1960. Palmer eventually won by two, with a final round 65 that erased a seven stroke deficit, but Hogan described the young man he was paired with in the last round with unusual candor and admiration; “I played 36 holes today with a kid, if he had a brain in his head, should have won this thing by ten strokes.”

Nicklaus toyed with the idea of remaining an amateur as his idol, Bobby Jones, had done, but decided to turn pro in 1962. At the age of 22, he defeated Palmer in an 18 hole playoff to win the United States Open, in Arnie’s backyard, Oakmont. This was the beginning of the most impressive record in the Majors of all time. He finished his career with 18 Major wins, 19 seconds, 46 top threes, 55 top fives, and 73 top tens. Just to put those numbers in perspective, Jack has more top threes in Majors (46), than Tiger Woods has top tens (41).

Jack’s record is so overwhelming that it eliminates from consideration all of the top players of his own time from our discussion as Greatest Golfer of All Time. Arnold Palmer won 62 PGA events and seven Majors between 1955 and 1973, that’s very impressive, but Jack leads him 73-62 in Tour wins and 18-7 in Majors.

Gary Player won over 125 tournaments throughout the world, nine Majors, which includes a career Grand Slam. Jack has won every Major at least three times.

Of Lee Trevino’s 6 Majors, in four Nicklaus finished second. But his 29 Tour wins and six Majors, pales next to Jack.

From June of 1973 to July of 1976, just over three years, Johnny Miller won 16 PGA Tournaments and two Majors. During that same time Nicklaus went part time on Tour because he and wife Barbara had five kids at home. He still won 10 Tour events, including three Majors and two Players Championships. This was the peak of Miller’s dominance and it is not better than what Jack accomplished as a part time Tour player.

Tom Watson had several memorable duels with “The Golden Bear”, beating him in dramatic fashion at the 1977 Masters and (British) Open Championship, then again at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He has 39 tour wins and eight Majors. Jack has 73 and 18. Jack’s record was clearly superior than any of his contemporaries.

Let’s put Jack’s career against the others, from different eras, we are considering. Harry Vardon played in 34 Majors, 31 Open Championships and three U.S. Opens between ages 23 and 59. His record in the (British) Open Championship was 6 wins, 10 top 2s, 12 top 3s, and 20 top 10s. Jack’s Open record is 3 wins, 10 top 2s, 13 top 3s and 18 top 10s between the ages 22 and 60.  It’s close, but Vardon’s record is better. Vardon only participated in the U.S. Open three times, and had an impressive one win and two 2nds. Vardon was 30, 43, and 50 in his three tries in America. 

As we stated in our Bobby Jones article, Jones only entered one of the modern Majors 15 times. In the 15 opportunities he had 7 wins, 4 seconds, and 13 top tens! That’s an incredible run. Jones then quit playing competitive golf at age 28. So how does Nicklaus match up with Bobby Jones’ record through age 28? In Jack’s 19 Open (British & U.S.) appearances from ages 18 to 28 he had 3 wins, 5 seconds and 11 top tens in the two Opens. That’s an excellent record, but Jones’ is better. Jack’s overall record in the two Opens is much better, In 81 total entries, Nicklaus had 7 wins, 11 seconds, and 36 top tens.

Now let’s put Nicklaus up against Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. As we wrote about earlier, counting Majors is unfair to both Sam and Ben. They only played the (British) Open Championship 4 times between them, each winning one. They also lost 16 Major opportunities each due to World War II. In their careers, Snead appeared in 114 Majors, Hogan 58. Their records in those Majors was 7 wins, 7 seconds and 48 top tens for “Slammin” Sammy, and 9 wins, 6 seconds and 40 top tens for “The Hawk”. Between the two they participated in 172 Majors, with 16 wins, 13 seconds, 38 top threes, and 88 top tens. Nicklaus, in 164 entries, had 18 wins, 19 seconds, 37 top threes, and 76 top tens. That’s pretty good evidence of the greatness of Jack Nicklaus, his record is the equal of Hogan and Snead combined. On the other hand, Nicklaus won “only” 73 PGA Tour events, while Snead won 82 and Hogan 64.

As you can see, Jack’s case to be considered the Greatest of All Time is primarily based on his record in Major Championships. That record is awesome; 6 Masters Titles (most of all time), five PGA Championships (2nd to Walter Hagen’s six), four U.S. Opens (tied for most with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, and Ben Hogan), and three (British) Opens (Vardon leads with six). If you’re looking at total PGA Tour wins he’s third behind Snead and Tiger Woods. Obviously his PGA Tour victories record, as good as it is, would not place him in the #1 spot. His case as the Greatest of All Time is based primarily on his unprecedented success in the Majors.    

We’ll give the final say about how good Jack Nicklaus was to the great Bobby Jones; “Jack is playing a different game, a game I’m not even familiar with.”

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