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Nicklaus vs. Watson at the British Open

July 14th, 2011 · 2 Comments

Tom Watson is playing in the Open this week, so you will see much of him over the first 36 holes and more if he makes the cut no matter what he shoots.

Much talk will be about his stature as the supposed best ever at links golf. The experts base their conclusion on his five wins and his ability to play in bad weather. While weight should go to both points, winning is not everything, and not all rounds are played in bad weather. Furthermore, since all Opens have been played on links courses, it is fair to compare a player’s complete body of work in the Open with another’s to arrive at the best links player.

The obvious contender for best ever at links golf is Jack Nicklaus. He won in gale force winds and hay fields, and he contended in every conceivable condition and on every course on the regular rota in his prime (he did not play Royal St. Georges until he was 41).

As for the numbers, Watson does own a 5-3 edge in wins thanks to his win over Nicklaus at the Duel in the Sun in 1977. Were it not for a 60 foot putt Watson holed late in the final round, they would be tied at 4-4.

Once we go past wins, Nicklaus dominates the head-to-head matchup. He leads Watson in seconds 7 to 2, in thirds 3 to 0, and in fourths 2-1. That’s a commanding 15-7 lead in top fours. In top 10s, Nicklaus leads 18-10. Up through age 45 Nicklaus missed only one cut (that coming at age 45) while Watson missed four. Finally, Nicklaus strung together 15 consecutive top sixes (!!!) while Watson’s best string was three straight.

So, you can buy into the “experts” rhetoric if you please, but the facts show that Nicklaus’ overall record in the Open was far superior to Watson’s, and that makes him the Best Ever at links golf.

For a story on Stricker’s chances, read…

Tags: Inside the Stats · The Game


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Jul 14, 2011 at 8:22 am

    I’m not trying to quibble over your pick of Nicklaus over Watson, but I think some attention should be paid to defining what we mean by “best ever.” If this were track and field, we would naturally award the distinction of “best runner” to the guy with the best times in the various running events. We probably wouldn’t pay much attention to career longevity. For some reason, in golf, baseball, and some other sports, we seem to attach a lot more importance to cumulative stats vs. rate stats. For example, I think Derek Jeter has the most career hits of any shortstop in baseball history (although humor me if I’m wrong about that). I’m a fan of Jeter and the Yankees; however, if you asked me who the “best ever” SS was, I don’t think it would occur to me to name Jeter. I think I’d focus a lot more on identifying the player who, over a reasonable number of seasons, played shortstop better than anyone else. IOW, highest peak rather than longest period of success. Back to golf, it seems to me that counting up Nicklaus’ many high finishes at the Open doesn’t quite answer the question of whether he was a better links player than Watson. It may be the case that he was better, but I would want to focus on Watson, in his (admittedly shorter prime) vs. Nicklaus in HIS prime, and see which one displayed a superior mastery in that style of golf.

  • 2 Phil // Jul 14, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Hi BD, I see the logic in your “reasonably long” period. Watson’s peak went lasted 10 years with five wins. It also included an MC and three finishes outside of the top 10, indicating that certain courses and conditions were more than he could handle, or his style of play did give him the consistency we’d expect from a Best Ever. The problem with Nicklaus is that his peak just went on and on. Over that 15 years, his worst finish was a 6t, and most were top 3s (11) so it is tough to exclude finishes this high as not being part of a peak. And, with this many years at the top, he proved he could deal with anything and everything, year after year while Watson could not. Longevity loses some of its luster only when there are huge breaks in winning and contending, such as with Ray Floyd’s career.

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