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In an internet awash with junk, every once in a while you stumble onto gold. I wanted to document this little piece that was well researched and presented. I was surprised at how little I knew of this history. This is courtesy of Brock Savage over at GolfWRX:


Jack fans, who like to accuse Tiger fans of knowing nothing about golf history, seem strangely unaware that before Jack broke the record, the pro with the most major wins was Walter Hagen, who had 11 titles now recognized as majors, plus five Western Opens, which was considered a major before the Masters was founded, and certainly had much tougher fields than the amateur majors that padded Jones’s total. 16 majors, from a guy who won the US Open before the PGA or Masters were even founded, and who had to travel by ship to play the British Open (which was cancelled for WWI for five years during Hagen’s prime), but nobody ever said Hagen was the GOAT. But somehow, by the late 70′s, most of the public and media accepted that “most majors” was the best way to compare players.

I’m a Tiger fan now, but I’ve been attending PGA events since the 60′s, and Jack was my favorite player for over 30 years. I very clearly remember him lobbying for the majors standard in TV interviews. I’ve collected references I’ve found over the years, and I thought I’d post some samples to show a timeline of the evolution of Jack’s statements on the subject. Hopefully some of my pals here can use it for future reference. I’m starting a new thread so it will be easy to find, and I think it has enough meat to be a subject in itself.
I’ve indulged myself by guessing Jack’s motives for each change of direction. I acknowledge that it is sheer speculation. Anything inside quotes is something Jack said; anything outside of quotes is my own paraphrase or imagination, and you’re welcome to differ with my opinion of his motives. But I think the quotes pretty much speak for themselves.

1959 — As an amateur, Jack says that Bobby Jones is the greatest player ever. But he says it in the context of the Grand Slam, not his total major wins. Note that in Jack’s 1996 autobiography, he said that he never seriously contemplated turning pro until mid-1961, so he felt he had a long time to try to match the feat of Jones:
“That’s my goal. Bobby Jones. It’s the only goal.”
Unfortunately, the original is no longer linkable since Time put up a pay wall.

1963 — Now he’s a pro, so it’s no longer possible to duplicate the Slam of Bobby Jones. Jack nimbly comes up with a new standard for GOAT. He says the guy who wins the most tournaments (not majors) is the greatest golfer of all time: “My aim is to win more golf tournaments than anybody who ever lived. I want to be the greatest.” Arnie had averaged over seven wins a year for the previous three years, and Jack had beaten Arnie at the previous US Open, so Jack probably figured he could break Snead’s record in no more than 12 years.

1965 — In spite of one of the fastest starts ever, Jack is only averaging four wins per year, which means it might take over 20 years to catch Snead, even if Jack can keep up his youthful pace (he was playing 26 events a year then). Jack reconsiders his chances, and switches goals again. He now considers Hogan as the greatest ever. He says to beat him, he might have to win the (pro) Grand Slam, which only takes one good year. Note that Hogan had fewer majors than Hagen, whom Jack never mentioned as a standard. Note also that Jack is here saying it’s possible to be the GOAT with just four majors, if they’re consecutive:
“Right now I think you would have to say that Hogan was the best ever. That is the goal, but I don’t know how you get there. Maybe I could win the Grand Slam, but what would I do after that if I was still young?”

Bonus from 1965: How many times have you read a post claiming that golfers today lack the killer instinct because of the money they can make by just getting top tens? And how the golfers in Jack’s day had to win, or their kids would go hungry? Here’s an article from 1965 saying that American golfers are too soft, because all their endorsement money makes them not care about winning:
‘ Palmer summed it up well recently when he was quoted as follows: “I don’t think it’s a good idea for our young players to compete without any real financial incentive, which is what happens when you have a sponsor. These kids don’t know what it is like to have to win in order to survive. They know they don’t need to win to make a lot of money—more money than they ever dreamed of.”‘

1970 — This was the watershed year, when Jack switched his goal to most majors, consecutive or not. I haven’t found a contemporary account of Jack’s exchange with Bob Green, the AP reporter who told Jack that he was only three majors short of Bobby Jones’s total after Jack won the 1970 Open at St. Andrews, but here is Jack’s recollection of it:
“It’s like my majors, I never counted my majors until Bob Green (of The Associated Press) told me at St. Andrews in the ’70s. He says, ‘Hey, Jack, that’s ten, only three more to tie Bobby Jones.’ I said, ‘Really?’ Honest, I swear, I never counted them.”

1970 — Jack quickly latches on to the idea of winning four more majors to beat Jones, rather than 50 more PGA events to beat Snead, or the seemingly impossible Grand Slam. One week after his Open win, Jack says his chief goal has always been the Grand Slam, but now adds that his other goal is winning 14 majors to beat Bobby Jones. Note that at this time, it is just his personal goal, and not a suggested standard.

1971 — Jack says his goal in golf is 14 majors to beat Jones’s record, but now hints that if he does it, it would make him the GOAT:
“The accomplishment that would separate me from other golfers is to win more major championships than [Jones] did.”

1973 — Jack wins his 14th major, breaking Jones’s record. He now argues that majors are the only way to judge players of different eras. Note that he sort of acknowledges that it’s not fair to Jones, who CHOSE to stop playing majors, but he doesn’t mention Hogan, Hagen, Snead, and everybody else who came before him, who COULDN’T play four majors a year, or had several majors cancelled for world wars:
“You can’t compare stroke average because of the difference in course and people and equipment. You certainly can’t compare money winnings. That’s not valid. The only yardstick is the major championships. And even those aren’t the same. The comparison is very difficult to make. Remember, Jones retired at 28. If he’d stayed active, there’s no telling how many he would have won.”

1973 — Dan Jenkins, chief golf writer for SI and Jack’s head cheerleader, lends his full support. He says with his 14th major, Jack “officially became the greatest golfer who ever lived or died,” and compares an offhand remark Jack made to the Gettysburg Address. You think Tiger has sycophants in the media…

1975 — Now in full lobbying mode, Jack argues that majors are the ONLY FAIR WAY to judge players. Not a hint about Jones retiring early, let alone Hagen hitting his prime before the PGA or Masters were founded:
“Money changes. You can’t use that to compare. The only fair, adequate way to compare a player of one era against a player of another is his record in the major championships.”

1979 — Mission accomplished. The public has thrown Vardon, Jones, Hagen, Hogan, Nelson, and Snead under the bus, and bought into the idea that majors are the only fair comparison. Jack says his goal now is to extend his majors record as high as possible, to make it harder for a future player to catch him.


3 Responses to “Jack’s Evolution: What Constitutes “Greatest of All Time”?”

  1. Geezz… I would have thought that winning tournaments, Majors or not, only a part of what constitutes, “The Greatest of All Time”. Doesn’t how you play the game have some influence or how you act off the golf course or what you give back to the game influence who people think is or was the greatest “as well”? Didn’t Walter Hagan help establish the Professional Golfer idea? Didn’t Bobby Jones acheive academic degrees as well as call stroke penalties on himself? I think Arnie, Gary Player and Jack have raised millions of dollars for childrens hospitals and all 3 have had reasonably good marriages? Are they pleasant with the media and supporters? Numbers matter but there’s other things too!

    • Agreed. I think overall tournament victories is a big one and Snead was the man in that department. 11 in a row is also untouchable status like Wilt’s 100 point basketball game. Just crazy good. It’s hard to define and there are a lot of factors but I’d probably go with Byron.

  2. Avatar of Ogre41 Ogre41 says:

    Isn’t Tiger in position to take over the Majors and Tournaments won lead? Add that to his Tiger Slam, and he takes the GOAT by all of Jack’s criteria. I think that Hagen, Jones, Snead, Nelson, Palmer, Nicklaus, Hogan, and any of the others that I may have overlooked (and I know I did) have a place in the annals of greatness. But Mr. Woods appears to be in a class all by himself based on numbers.

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