Is The Greatest Golfer Of All Time Tiger Woods Or Jack Nicklaus? We Dived Into The Stats To Try And Settle The Argument For Good...

Who is the greatest – Tiger or Jack? It’s a question that is often posed and it must be answered with a degree of subjectivity, but we looked at the data to try and find an answer...

TIger Woods or Jack Nicklaus
Tiger and Jack at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews
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First thing to say in this debate is that it’s very difficult to make comparisons between two players in any sport when they have competed in different eras. We will never know for sure who would have triumphed had Tiger Woods being playing to the peak of his powers against Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s and 70s, or if Jack had faced up to Tiger when playing his best stuff in the late 1990s or 2000s.

Second thing to note is that, because the stats on all aspects of the game that have been kept during Tiger’s playing career are significantly more extensive and wide-ranging than the numbers we have for Jack’s career, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make direct comparisons between their numbers, in terms of strokes gained or percentage of putts holed, for example.

Then, you have to take technology into account – Tiger has used equipment that offers greater advantage than what was on offer to Jack 50 years ago, so the younger man has been able to hit the ball further, spin the ball more consistently, putt on smoother surfaces, play from crisper lies.

There will then always be a high degree of subjectivity in discussions around who is the greatest golfer of all time but there are ways to try and make a case for either Tiger or Jack based on stats that we do have available, in terms of what they have achieved in their careers. Here we take a look at a selection of criteria to try and determine - Tiger Woods Or Jack Nicklaus – Who Is The Greatest Golfer?


Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters

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This is where Jack obviously has an edge – He secured 18 Major titles compared to Tiger’s (current) 15… Tiger could yet get closer to the "Golden Bear’s" number, but your author wouldn’t be sticking his neck on the line too aggressively to suggest he probably won’t.

Jack completed the career Grand Slam three times over, so has Tiger Woods.

Let’s consider further Major performances to confirm Jack’s dominance over Tiger’s record in the big four events – Jack recorded an astonishing 55 further top-10 Major finishes, aside from his 18 wins. In 19 of those further top-10s, he was runner-up. Tiger has had 26 further top-10s, seven of which have been runner-up finishes.

Jack’s first top-10 came in the 1960 US Open and his last came in the 1998 Masters – A gap of 38 years. Tiger’s first top-10 in a Major was his victory in the 1997 Masters, his last was his win in the 2019 Masters, a gap of 22 years.

During the 1970s, Jack played all 40 Majors contested, he finished in the top-10 in 35 of them.

When it comes to Major performances – Jack Nicklaus is the greatest male golfer of all time.

Victories, Orders Of Merit And Scoring

TIger Woods

Tiger's first PGA Tour victory - The 1996 Las Vegas Invitational

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As Tiger is not yet a senior, we’re talking here about purely, main men’s tour titles. Jack Nicklaus secured 73 PGA Tour titles between 1962 and 1986, he won three times in Australia and 24 further events in (pre senior competition) – a total of 100 professional victories then.

Tiger Woods has won 82 times on the PGA Tour – Equal with Sam Snead for the most ever on the circuit. He has won another 28 times around the world for a total of 110 professional victories to this point.

Nicklaus topped the PGA Tour money list eight times between 1964 and 1976. Tiger topped the PGA Tour money list 10 times between 1997 and 2013.

In terms of total events played – Jack played 586 times on the PGA Tour with 73 wins. That’s a winning % of 12.5%. Tiger has played just 358 times on the PGA Tour with 82 wins. A winning % of 23%.

On the PGA Tour, Jack ended the year with a scoring average below 70 strokes on four occasions, Tiger managed that feat 17 times.

Looking at wins and overall performance in professional tournaments outside of the Majors, Tiger must be said to have the upper hand.

Amateur Careers

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods won three straight US Amateur Championships

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Both men had extremely impressive amateur careers. Woods won the US Junior Amateur three years straight and then won the US Amateur Championship three years consecutively after that. He is the only man to win the US Amateur three years in a row. He played in the Eisenhower Trophy and the Walker Cup (although the US team lost in 1995) and was six time a Junior World Golf Champion.

Nicklaus twice won the US Amateur Championship and twice played in the Walker Cup on the winning side. He also played in the Eisenhower Trophy and was both team and individual champion. Nicklaus finished second in the 1960 US Open while still an amateur.

When it comes to amateur achievements, it should probably be considered an honourable half between these two paladins of our sport.

Team Events

Jack NIcklaus

Jack Nicklaus with the Ryder Cup

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We’ve seen that Nicklaus probably has the edge on amateur team performances but what about in the pro ranks?

Starting with the Ryder Cup – Jack played in six instalments of the great biennial trans-Atlantic contest and was in the winning side for five of those matches, the other (1969) was a tie. Jack’s record in the Ryder Cup is 17-8-3. That’s a win % of 61%. Tiger played in eight Ryder Cups and has only once been on the winning side – 1999 at Brookline. Tiger’s Ryder Cup record is 13-12-3. That’s a win % of just 46%.

Jack played for the USA in seven World Cups. He was on the winning side on six of those seven occasions and was three times the individual winner.

Tiger played for the USA in three World Cups and was on the winning side twice. He won the individual once.

Jack has twice been captain of the US Ryder Cup team and four times captain of the US Presidents Cup Team. Tiger has played in nine instalments of the Presidents Cup and has been playing captain once.

In the case of team events, Jack has the edge.


Jack Nicklaus

Jack driving in the 1963 Masters

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Both Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are renowned for their ability to drive the golf ball so it’s worth considering this as a factor in discussion of their greatness. 

Even when taking technology advances into consideration, Tiger has probably been a longer hitter – His peak average on the PGA Tour was 316.1 yards in 2005.

Jack could certainly shift it, but where he might get the nod on the driving was in terms of a combination of both power and accuracy. The first year the PGA Tour has records for stats is 1980 when Jack was 40. Even then he ranked 10th in driving distance for the season with an average of 269 yards. It should be noted, he also ranked 13th in driving accuracy that season. With a total driving score of 23 (the two rankings added together) it remains the greatest recorded season of all-round driving on the PGA Tour.

Overall Impact On Golf

Tiger Woods

TIger has had a huge impact on golf and on sport

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Jack Nicklaus has been involved in course design since the mid 1960s when Pete Dye asked for his opinions on various possible changes to his designs. Nicklaus Design (a company Nicklaus runs in partnership with his sons and son in law) has been responsible for the design of more than 300 courses worldwide. Tiger Woods and TGR Design has been responsible for the design of 11 courses.

Jack was part of the “Big Three” together with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who changed the game of golf through the 1960s. As the TV age brought the sport into households around the world, Jack’s was the face of the 1960s and 70s. When he conceded “that putt” to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup his actions inspired sportspeople and others to act with integrity and generosity.

Jack has been a consummate professional through his long and impressive career as both a player and as an ambassador for golf.

Tiger has inspired generations of new golfers. His career has done more to promote the game globally than any other in the history of our sport. He has been the face of advertising campaigns, the face of computer games, of equipment launches and advances. He has changed the technique of golf, changed the approach of players in terms of dedication and fitness. His star has shone outside the galaxy of golf and he has brought the sport to a new audience. When we talk about impact on golf – Tiger has had more impact than any other figure, ever.

So what do the stats tell us about whether Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus is the greatest? Well, because we don’t have sufficient comparable stats, they’re inconclusive. It depends what you see as the most important qualification for greatness. If it’s purely down to The Majors, Jack wins. If it’s down to individual, overall performance, Tiger wins. If you consider the technical data we do have – probably it’s Tiger, but in terms of team events, Jack has the edge. Tiger and Jack are the two greatest male golfers ever to tread the fairways but if we have to consider who history will say had the greater overall impact on the sport – It’s probably got to be Tiger.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?