It seems appropriate upon the occasion of Tiger Woods equaling Arnold Palmer on the all time PGA Tour win list to revisit his credentials.
The question has often been asked, "Is Tiger's win total inflated by current circumstances and competition (or lack thereof) in pro golf?"
I'm going to set out here to definitively answer that question.
I'll always start out these editorials by setting out the foundation of how I view critical elements of the subject at hand, and here is how I view Tiger's skills, and what my bias might be.
I've been a major Jack Nicklaus fan since I started following pro golf tournaments at the age of 12 in 1969. I've known elation and despair with made and missed putts, particularly in the majors. I strongly believe that Jack is the best golfer ever given the entirety of the circumstances surrounding each great golfer, and when Tiger passes his win total for majors I'll mourn ... just a bit.
On the other hand, I take nothing away from Tiger's skill. I believe that as a technician of the golf swing, as a competitor with the heart and nerve to successfully complete, as an athlete with the hunger to win, and as a major sports figure with longevity of achievement, he stands in the most elite group of golf talent. Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson are the men I consider the other members of that group.
Now the question: "Are Tiger's win totals inflated due to lack of competitoin?"
The answer is almost certainly, "Yes."
This is a list of major talent with whom Jack Nicklaus had to compete for wins during the 24 year span in which he won majors:
Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Cary Middlecoff, Tom Watson, Gene Littler, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Hubert Green, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Tom Weiskopf
These are all incredibly talented men with at least 16 tour wins to their credit ... most of these wins during peak years of Jack Nicklaus' career.
Here is the list as concerns Tiger Woods:
Phil Mickleson, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, Ernie Els, David Duval, Jim Furyk
Of those, only Phil and Vijay have been consistent competition for Tiger.
Jack's list includes 15 rivals with 19 or more wins, Tiger's contains 3. And let me mention, there is not an overflowing list of up and coming talent set to challenge him in the next few years either.
This isn't just an accident. There is a very clear explanation for why Jack had so many more rivals than Tiger ... Jack played during the "Hungry Era" of PGA Tour golf.
For most of Jack's career, you had to finish high in a tournament to make any significant cash. Jack's wins in the 70's were worth about 30 grand apiece, majors were about 50. Tiger gets 800 thousand to 1.2 million per win, and the purses are large right down the line.
In Jack's day, you had to have a LOT of high finishes to make a nice living on the Tour.
Today's players don't have to win, or even hit the top 10, to become quite wealthy. As a result, even a lot of very talented pros have never developed a real hunger for victory. Guys you never even see on weekly TV coverage break a million in purses. This doesn't include the largess from equipment and other endorsements that every pro enjoys, just for hitting a certain ball or wearing a certain shoe.
I think Tiger would have been a stand out talent even in the "Hungry Era", as he does indeed have the hunger to win, and the talent to back it up. But he'd have a lower majors total at the same age, and fewer overall tournament wins. Instead of having to win against AP, Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, etc., Tiger only has to worry about Phil and Vijay and some guy who might get hot that week (Jack had those come along too).
Let me tell you, when Jack won in a close one over Trevino, or vice versa, the guy in 2nd wasn't all that happy about it, and had been playing his heart out. Not many guys today are that unhappy to be coming in 2nd to Tiger, and are quite content to cash their $700,000 check for 2nd.
In fairness, there's nothing Tiger can do about this but continue to prove that he has the desire to use his skill to win when others are content not to. He can't control the circumstance that so many are so comfortable, and its not his business to try to talk them into stepping up! LOL