When Tiger Woods won his first professional major championship, at the 1997 Masters, there was little uncertainty about what number was driving his nascent career: 18.
Jack Nicklaus had won 18 professional major titles in his peerless career, and Woods made it clear that he wanted to surpass Nicklaus before he was done dominating the sport. The only doubt—at least in my mind—came when I had dinner with Woods in February 1998 and casually mentioned he needed 17 more majors to tie Nicklaus.
“Sixteen,” Woods corrected. “Jack won 20 if you include his two [U.S.] Amateurs. I won the Amateur three times, so I’ve got four.”
That notion never took hold with the public. The number most associated with Nicklaus is 18 and always will be 18. The number associated with Woods is 15—not 18.
Regardless, the bar has never moved for Woods. The minute he broke his major drought of almost 11 years at Augusta National last April, people began bringing up 18 again. Can he win three more? How about four?
On Sunday, Novak Djokovic won his 17th major tennis title when he came from behind to beat Dominic Thiem to win his eighth Australian Open. The victory left Djokovic three majors behind Roger Federer and two behind Rafael Nadal. Here’s the difference between golf and tennis: Nicklaus was 57 and all but retired when Woods won his first pro major. Jack did make a remarkable run at Augusta in 1998 before finishing T-6, but Nicklaus was 11 years removed from his last major victory when Woods beat the field by 12 at Augusta in ’97.
Nicklaus was already predicting that Woods would blow away all his numbers before Woods won that first title. After Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had played a Tuesday practice round with Woods in 1996, Nicklaus came into the interview room and declared, “This kid’s going to win more Masters than Arnold and I did combined.”
Nicklaus and Palmer won 10 Masters. Right from the start, the bar was set very high for Woods. But at least Woods knew exactly where the bar was, and who had put it there.
Djokovic doesn’t have that luxury. He had to beat Federer in the semifinals in Australia last week. Nadal, who has had more trouble winning in Australia than anyplace else, was beaten in the quarterfinals by Thiem. A year ago, Djokovic beat Nadal in the final. Two years ago, the winner Down Under was Federer—then 36.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams has been trying to pass Margaret Court on the all-time major list since 2017, when she won her 23rd major title—also in Australia. Williams was pregnant when she won that title, and even though she has reached three major finals since the birth of her daughter in September 2017, she hasn’t been able to equal Court’s 24 major wins.
But like Woods, Williams knows the bar isn’t going to move on her. Court is 77 and in the news these days only because of her controversial politics.
Many believe that Federer, now 38, isn’t likely to win another major. But they believed that when he went four years without a major title from 2013 to 2016. Then he won in Australia and at Wimbledon in 2017 and again in Australia in 2018. Last year, Federer had two match points in the fifth set against Djokovic at Wimbledon before losing in the final. Never say never with Federer.
In golf, there are no true head-to-head records to help judge who might be better. Battles in the final round of a major are rare: Nicklaus beat Palmer in a U.S. Open playoff in 1962; Lee Trevino beat Nicklaus in another Open playoff in 1971; Tom Watson stared Nicklaus down in late-major duels at Augusta and Turnberry in 1977, and Pebble Beach in 1982. Only once—at the 2002 Masters—did Woods go head-to-head with Phil Mickelson and David Duval in a final-round showdown. Mickelson and Duval were contemporaries and stars, though not equals or even near-equals.
In tennis, you can look up the head-to-head records of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic anytime you want. Nadal leads Federer, 24-16—including 11-2 on clay, the surface where he is almost unbeatable. Djokovic also leads Federer, 26-23, and leads Nadal, 29-26.
There’s no doubt that Djokovic has been the dominant player of the last 10 years. When he won his second major (Australia in 2011), Federer already had 16 majors and Nadal had won nine. Each had completed the career Grand Slam—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open. Since then, Federer has won four majors; Nadal, who turns 34 in June, has won 10—including two last year. Djokovic, who will be 33 in May, has won 15—including three of the last four.
Tennis’ next major is the French Open, at Roland Garros, where Nadal has won an astounding 12 times. Anyone want to pick against him? Federer, as he proved last year, might have one more Wimbledon in him—he’s won eight. And Djokovic just keeps trying to climb the mountain. Among active players, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray are next in major victories—with three apiece.
Right from the start, the major bar was set very high for Tiger Woods. But at least he knew exactly where the bar was, and who had put it there.
It’s worth noting that Roy Emerson became the all-time leader in men’s singles titles when he won his 12th in 1967. That record stood for 33 years, until Pete Sampras broke it. Sampras won his 14th and final major at the 2002 U.S. Open. Seven years later, Federer went past him. Now, Nadal and Djokovic have also shot past Sampras—even though the three great champions have had to face one another constantly during their careers.
Nicklaus and Woods have no real challengers at this point for the top two slots in golf. Walter Hagen is third in professional majors won at 11—the last coming in 1929. Then come Ben Hogan and Gary Player with nine and Watson with eight. Watson was the most recent to win a major in that group—in 1983.
Phil Mickelson is the only active player other than Woods with five major titles—and he’s almost 50. Ernie Els, who just turned 50, has four. Rory McIlroy, 30, and Brooks Koepka, 29, have four apiece. Jordan Spieth, who is 26, has three.
If you set an over-under at 10 for McIlroy, Koepka and Spieth, most people would take the under. But you never know. Djokovic certainly didn’t appear to be a serious challenger to Federer or Nadal as recently as five years ago.
Chances are, though, that when the next challenger to Nicklaus or Woods comes along—if one comes along—he will know exactly where the bar is set. It might be a very high bar, but at least it won’t be a moving target.