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Nicklaus’ swing makes him the Best Ever

May 13th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Let’s take a fresh look at the Best Ever debate.

With Tiger Woods’ injuries, scandal, poor play of late, and now the departure of his coach, Hank Haney, many are questioning whether he can pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. It is assumed that if Woods succeeds, he would automatically become the new Best Ever. No cross era context is provided, nor is any value given to Nicklaus’ 28 seconds and thirds. But that’s a subject for another day.

For now, let’s concentrate on who has the better golf swing, figuring that if the two could have played head-to-head at the same age (either in Nicklaus era or now), that swing quality would have been a major factor in determining the winner.

Nicklaus used the swing he learned from Jack Grout from 1962-79, during which time he won 15 majors. After a deep slump in 1979, he made three big changes in early 1980 with Grout’s help, then won two more majors that same year!

Throughout his prime, Nicklaus was a greens hitting machine in the majors, a long and accurate driver with a superb iron game to boot. In fact, his tee-to-green play was so good that he rarely needed his oft-maligned short game. His swing was a model of consistency thanks to his great fundamentals, excellence footwork and, most importantly, his ability to fix his swing while on the course.

Woods began his career as an excellent ball striker, especially off the tee. From 1997-2002 his fairways hit stat ranged from 65.5% to 71.3%. Then his form with his long clubs began to deteriorate. From 2003 on, his fairways hit stat has ranged from 64.3% (last year), to as low as 54.6% in 2005. In short, he’s spent the last seven seasons struggling with the game’s most (or second most) important club.

So, comparing their swings over time, we have Nicklaus, who needed only one swing for the first 18 years (because it worked so well) versus Woods and his three models, each of which have all been deeply flawed. His first swing had, by Woods’ estimation, as least 10 flaws. (See his book, How I Play Golf). His second swing put a strain on his left knee. And his overly flat third swing has made him the wildest driver ever among the game’s elite champions.

Look at it another way:  In the Olympic ice skating finals, if one skater falls once or twice and the other doesn’t, the one that stays upright win the gold. If golf were figure skating, Nicklaus would be the winner while Woods (thanks to his errant tee balls) would be the one with his butt on the ice.

I suppose many will choose the Best Ever based only on majors won. In that case, Nicklaus is still king, though Woods still has a chance to pass him. If, however, these two played at the same time and you believe that the player with the better swing would win more often, then it is no contest – Nicklaus is the Best Ever, case dismissed.

Tags: Tiger vs. Jack

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 rexfordbuzzsaw // May 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I think you’re missing the point by just relying on DA% stats. There is so much that varies from course to course that comparing straight percentages is almost meaningless. That doesn’t even factor in that Tiger plays fewer tournaments on most of the hardest set-ups now, while in 2000 he still played a few birdie fests.

    Have you ever considered that driving accuracy doesn’t really matter?

    Tiger, when healthy, has been BY FAR the best player in the world for the past few years regardless of where he drives the ball.

    Finally, I’m not quite sure how you say “Nicklaus is the best ever, case dismissed.” Tiger plays against fields that are at least 10 times deeper than Nicklaus, with tons of technology to aid the weaker players on tour(hybrids, cavity backed irons). I’m not saying Woods would beat Nicklaus every time, but if they went head-to-head 1000 times I think there is almost no way Tiger doesn’t come out on top.

  • 2 BDt // May 14, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Nicklaus may have had the better swing, and he may (still) be the greatest ever, but I don’t think the two things have much to do with each other. It still comes down to majors. If Tiger wins 20, for example, what difference will it have made if Jack had a better swing?

    You actually seem to accept this logic at some level, because you are basing your evaluation of Jack’s and Tiger’s swings, at least in part, on how many majors each of them have been able to win with their respective swings.

  • 3 BD // May 14, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    “BDt” is me (typo caused by unreasonably small keyboard).

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