Tiger, the Bear, and the Record That Matters Most

Tiger Woods won the AT&T National over the weekend.  Victories by Woods aren’t as rare as some would have you believe (he’s the only three-time winner on the Tour this season), but they obviously don’t come with the frequency they once did.  His three wins this season represent the most tournament titles he’s had since winning six times in 2009 before suffering injury-addled, winless campaigns in 2010 and 2011.

There was some historical significance attached to this particular victory: It was the 74th of Woods’ legendary career, putting him ahead of Jack Nicklaus on the PGA’s all-time wins ledger.  Woods now trails only Sam Snead, who won 82 tournaments.

Nicklaus, of course, still holds the vaunted major title record with an incredible 18 championships.  Woods stands at 14.  His likelihood of breaking Snead’s record seems greater than surpassing Nicklaus,’ but the possibility of the latter is still considerable.

By sheer coincidence, I happened to spot the article to the right while doing research on Saturday, the day before Woods passed Nicklaus by winning the AT&T.  The story dates from 1971, when Nicklaus had earned a then-record of his own, winning the Doral-Eastern Open to pass Arnold Palmer as golf’s all-time money leader—by winning a “hefty” $30,000 for his championship.

Yet, the title of the article says it all: “Nicklaus Passes Arnie, but Jones Real Target.”  The Golden Bear explained that, while winning money was nice, he was totally focused on the major record.  Nicklaus had won nine professional majors at the time, and Jones (who played at a time when the U. S. Amateur and British Amateur were two legs of golf’s Grand Slam) still held the record with 13 total majors.

The quotes from the Bear strike me as surprisingly candid by today’s standards.  In fact, he talks openly about not only wanting to surpass Jones, but wanting to surpass Jones by winning a Grand Slam.  The comments also read like they were paraphrased by a sportswriter, not taken verbatim.  “Robert Tyre Jones won 13 major titles in his great career.  I have taken 11 . . . ” and “The odds are against such a feat . . . ” don’t sound like Nicklaus speaking off-the-cuff.

The take-home point from the article is that Nicklaus focused on the majors, and other records (including Snead’s) were of marginal relevance to him.  I think the relevance and value of his honesty on the subject was especially great at that particular moment in history.  Remember, Nicklaus was only halfway to his eventual total of 18 majors when he expressed the point of view that winning majors was the primary criteria by which he would measure his career.  It would have been much easier to say that after he had gotten to sixteen or seventeen, or at least after he had surpassed Jones.  Nicklaus didn’t shy away from putting that pressure on himself, though.  He seemed to revel in it.

Woods was more reserved after his win last Sunday, but that speaks more to the era than it does to the intentions of the athlete.  There’s little doubt that Woods’ top priority for the remainder of his career is to own the major record before he retires.

As an interesting footnote to the story from ’71, Sam Snead’s record (reported there as “84” wins, probably due to different math as to which were “recognized” tournaments) is also addressed by the author in this article about Nicklaus’ victory.  Why?  Because Sam Snead finished fourth in the same tournament.

Fifty-nine-year-old Sam Snead.

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