124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2


Nicklaus, Woods or Hogan? An extremely 'scientific' look at who had golf's most impressive comeback

It would be irresponsible to try to compare one improbable comeback to another. We did so anyway
April 24, 2019
during the third round of the 2019 Masters Tournament held in Augusta, GA at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, April 14, 2019.

Tiger Woods' comeback last year was the talk of the golf world, and deservedly so, but in our secret hearts, we all knew it wouldn't be complete without another major. That last peak still seemed far off in the misty distance, even though he was routinely competing well against the best players in the world, but at Augusta National, he reached the mountaintop yet again.

Taken in total, it's certainly the greatest sports comeback of the year, and the decade, and possibly of my sports lifetime. But is it the greatest in the history of golf?

To answer that question, we have to compare him to the only other two men worthy of the distinction: Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. And we just treat the question with care—it's not something to be tossed in the chaotic washing machine of loose opinion and removed sopping wet one hour later only to realize we forgot the bleach of cold hard logic and the stain remover of rigorous scientific examination. This puzzle must be hand-washed, air-dried and finally steam-pressed until it gleams with truth.

You get the picture.

So, using eight categories, let's assign each man a score from 1-3 in each, and at the end we'll tally it up and declare a winner. That's just good science.

Category 1: The Lowest Low

The strength of any comeback must be measured by the depths to which the player had sunk at his lowest moment.

Augusta National Archive

Augusta National

Jack: Nothing befell Jack that was quite so dramatic as the trials of the other two men, but that doesn't mean he didn't face his share of adversity. With age, his form had declined, and he came into Augusta National in '86 in particularly poor shape, fresh off a series of missed cuts and low finishes. Some pundits, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tom McCollister, had written him off totally. But he was still kicking ass and taking names at the Ryder Cup, and it had only been two years since his last PGA Tour win.

Tiger: There's quite a bit more here. We've got the Thanksgiving debacle, the various affairs, sex addiction, DUI and injury after injury, to the point that as recently as 2017 he thought he was done for good. Tiger's lows were very low.

Hogan: Read the litany of injuries Hogan suffered when he threw himself across his wife to protect her from an impending head-on clash with a Greyhound bus in February 1949: Fracture collar bone, left ankle fracture, double-pelvis fracture, chipped rib and blood clots that almost killed him—all of which led to a 59-day stay in the hospital and a nine-month absence from golf. Plus, how good could medical care have been back then?

It's actually kinda tough to decide between Tiger and Hogan here—Tiger has him by longevity and emotional despair, but in the end I have to give the nod to Hogan for the sheer severity of the wreck, and the damage it wrought on his body.

Hogan 3, Tiger 2, Jack 1.

• • •

Category 2: The Previous High


Augusta National

Comebacks are simply better when the person was once atop the world. So who was the most atop the world? Who was atoppest?

Hogan: Three major victories before his crash, lots of other wins, the greatest player of his day.

Jack: Seventeen major victories before getting old, lots of other wins, the greatest player of his day.

Tiger: Fourteen major victories, lots of other wins, the greatest player of his day. There's an argument to be made that Tiger's win totals are more impressive because of stiffer competition, but in the end this one has to go Jack's way.

Jack 3, Tiger 2, Hogan 1.

• • •

Category 3: Haters

Nothing makes a comeback quite like the presence of haters.

Hogan: Probably not many haters. That was a time before haters.

Jack: Not a ton of haters, but maybe a few more than Hogan because media was incrementally more intense compared to the 1950s. As we saw above, there was at least one guy who fired off a hot "Nicklaus is done" take, and as it happens, that exact AJC column was taped to the fridge in the house Nicklaus rented in Augusta. The words remained on his mind even after the win—in his Butler Cabin interview, he said, "all I keep reading in the papers is that you don't win the Masters at age 46 … I guess they're wrong."

Tiger: So many haters, including me.

Tiger 3, Jack 2, Hogan 1

• • •

Category 4: Time in hell

The longer you're away, the more potent the comeback … you've got give the people a real chance to write you off.

Hogan: Away for a measly nine months, won the U.S. Open the very next year. Basically, he went from body-mutiliating car crash to king of the game in a year and three months. Blink and you'd miss it.

Jack: Went almost two years without winning a tournament before the '86 Masters, and almost six years without a major.

Tiger: Straight up did not win a major for a full decade and change, and was winless for five years before the 2018 Tour Championship.

Tiger 3, Jack 2, Hogan 1

• • •

Category 5: Post-Comeback Domination

Longevity prolongs the comeback, and longer comebacks are better than fluky short ones.

Hogan: After the '50 U.S. Open, he went on to win five majors and put together one of the greatest seasons ever in 1953, where he probably only missed a calendar grand slam because they scheduled the Open Championship and the PGA Championship for the same week.

Jack: Never won again after the '86 Masters.

Tiger: Already better than Jack, but nowhere near Hogan.

Hogan 3, Tiger 2, Jack 1

• • •

Category 6: Oldness

Love to see those old boys get after it.

Hogan: Was 37 when he won the U.S. Open after his car crash, BUT was 46 when he won the Colonial after a six-year drought. Still, the Colonial is not a major.

Jack: Won the Masters at age 46, making him the third-oldest major winner ever.

Tiger: Won his Masters at 43, still time to be a super old winner.

Jack 3, Tiger 2, Hogan 1

• • •

Category 7: Drama of the Comeback Moment

It's not about winning, but how you win.

Hogan: Hit a famous one-iron on the 18th at Merion to force a playoff, after which he outlasted Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio over 18 holes to win by four shots. And it was pretty cool how the fans mobbed him when he won.

Jack: Trailed by six shots coming into Sunday, shot 30 on the back nine, and had more than a few iconic moments, including this tee shot on 16.

Tiger: Also trailed coming into the final round, also had an iconic shot on 16, but maybe loses a half point for the way his opponents collapsed around him, giving him a two-shot cushion on 18 that let him play the hole ugly and make bogey for the win.

Jack 3, Hogan 2, Tiger 1

• • •

Category 8: The Celebration

Masters 2019

J.D. Cuban

As any sports movie worth its salt teaches us, the celebration counts almost as much as the victory. Whether you're screaming your wife's name, jumping into the arms of your trainer, collapsing on the ring or any of the other endings to the Rocky movies, pomp counts.

Hogan: The aforementioned crowd-mobbing. Does it get better than that?

Jack: Unfortunately, he was already in the clubhouse when he officially became he winner, and the broadcast at the time didn't even have a camera on him when Norman missed the final putt (2:53:10 mark). To be honest, the call wasn't so hot either.

Tiger: Began about 10 straight minutes of wolf-like howling and had a celebration with his family that we'll never forget.

Hogan 3, Tiger 2, Jack 1

• • •


It was an intense battle, but here's how it scored out in the end:

Tiger Woods: 17 points

Jack Nicklaus: 16 points

Ben Hogan: 15 points

There you have it! Science has proved, once and for all, that Tiger's comeback was the greatest in golf history, and science has never been wrong.