Tiger Woods has always focused on breaking his idol Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. He currently has 13. By this age, Nicklaus had 9, so that would put Woods on pace for 26. To put that in perspective, consider Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755 (ignoring Barry Bonds for the moment). For Woods to win 26/18ths as many majors as Nicklaus would be roughly the equivalent of somebody coming along and hitting 1091 homers, which would require somebody to come up to the major leagues at age 19 and average 40 homers per year through age 45, then come back at 46 and hit 11 more.
Yet, Woods has a worthy contemporary competitor — not on the golf course, but on the tennis court. Swissman Roger Federer, who won’t turn 27 until August, has won 12 Grand Slam titles. If he stays hot, he could overtake Woods, at least for a few years.
There are four Grand Slam tournaments each year — Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US — so they are a fair comparison to golf’s four major championships.
The tennis record for most Grand Slam victories is 14 by American Pete Sampras, who is now retired. Federer (born 8/8/81) is almost exactly 10 years younger than Sampras (born 8/12/71), and by early 1998, Sampras had won 10 of his 14 Grand Slam victories. So, if Federer maintains the same pace as Sampras, he’ll win about 17 Grand Slam titles.
That Nicklaus holds the golf record with 18 while Sampras holds the tennis record with only 14 mostly shows how much better Nicklaus was than all other golfers before Tiger, whereas it’s not at all clear who was the best tennis player before Federer. The top ten tennis players in terms of major championship victories have won 102, while the top 10 golfers have won 96, so the two sports are directly comparable.
Tennis players get old much faster than golfers, but major titles are easier to win in tennis for superstars at their peaks than in golf. That’s probably due to four factors:
– Tennis tournaments are seeded with the best player playing the worst player in the opening round, so success begets success in tennis, whereas almost all professional golf tournaments are at stroke play, so everybody starts equally.
– Luck plays a greater role in golf than in tennis due to smaller sample sizes. A typical golf tournament consists of about 270 strokes over four days, whereas a single five set match in tennis might require about many points (five sets times nine games per set times six points per game equals 270), and, say, three times that many strokes.
– Luck also plays a greater role in golf than in tennis because you play against the course, not against the other player, so the superior man can’t directly beat down the inferior man.
– The age window at which tennis players are a distinct threat to win major championships starts closing rapidly after age 30 or so, compared to about 40 for golfers, so a smaller fraction of all the tennis players alive at any one point in time are serious contenders to win.
So, all this means that Woods vs. Federer is a very fair comparison, and should motivate both men.
After Woods passes Nicklaus and Federer gets too old, however, Woods can motivate himself by setting his sights on the athlete with perhaps the most dominant statistics in any sport, Australian cricketeer Don Bradman.