Woods vs. Nicklaus: Who Would Win?

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By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Willie Mays never faced Roger Clemens. Nor did Barry Bonds have to cope with Warren Spahn. I don't mind. I saw them all -- in their own time. I don't want to see Night Train Lane clothesline Terrell Owens. Well, maybe I do, but it doesn't keep me up nights. And I am content to keep Johnny Unitas separate from Joe Montana, each compartmentalized and separate from Tom Brady.

But this thing with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus is bothering me. In a way that I have never felt with other athletes from different eras, I want them to meet in their primes. But I'm told they can't.

Rocky Marciano, the better Joe Frazier, doesn't have to meet Muhammad Ali. I'd like to see Bill Russell crush the hearts of every NBA center who came after him. However, I can live without it. But Tiger against his boyhood model Jack, what a loss.

At Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill party on Sunday, Woods equaled the biggest final-round comeback of his PGA Tour career, catching Sean O'Hair from five shots back. After he closed the show with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, Tiger celebrated with fist pumps and caddie hugs, but he did it all at three-quarter speed, not gingerly but judiciously. Got to be good to that knee. So he's learned that, too.

Now that Woods has shown that his torn-up knee and broken leg are healed and that, after just three events, he can win again, it's just a matter of wondering how amazing a pain-free Woods will be. Who doubted? But now we know for certain. The man who's won 18 of his last 32 tour events is rested and revved. Next up, Augusta.

In these next few years, Woods is almost certainly going to leave Nicklaus in the major title dust. At 33, Nicklaus had won 11 of his 18 majors; Woods already has 14. That trend implies about 23 pro majors for Tiger. When the time comes, Nicklaus will pass the crown with grace, as Bobby Jones did to him. Jack has said, "If he does break it, I hope I'm allowed to be the first to shake his hand."

As Woods continues to climb the sheer face of Mount Jack, only one question will really be left: If both were the same age, would Tiger really have thumped Jack?

There's no knock on Woods. But there is a caveat. It's just reality. Tiger has faced no contemporary of historic consequence except (wrong-stuff) Phil Mickelson. Nicklaus got all of his major titles in the face of Hall of Famers in their primes. Woods has finished second in a major only five times. Part of the reason is that he knows how to finish. But part of the reason is who he's had to beat.

When Nicklaus finished second (19 times), look who beat him: Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, four times each, Arnold Palmer twice, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros once each. That's a dozen major titles where Nicklaus finished runner-up to Hall of Fame players, from three distinct golf generations, with better career records than anybody Woods has ever had to beat.

So it's fair to wonder. And I find myself doing it every golf season. Now, after watching Tiger win a 91-hole U.S. Open on a broken leg, I continue to be convinced, as I have been for several years, that Woods is probably better -- but only slightly.

Watching Tiger post his latest statement victory at Bay Hill reminded me of the way Nicklaus used to roar through Florida in March, serving notice that the Masters (still in April, right?) had crossed his mind.

Once, at Doral, probably in '76 when he was player of the year for the fifth time, Nicklaus sank an 85-yard wedge shot for an eagle on Friday, then a day later, faced an almost identical length 86-yard shot on the same hole. Of course, Jack made a wisecrack to his caddie about hitting the shot just a hair harder and he'd make it again. Then he actually did.


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