After seeing Jack Nicklaus watching Roger Federer at Wimbledon last week, and inspired by this tweet from Shane Bacon, I decided to take a dive down the rabbit hole of greatness.
Not Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus, forget that argument, it's never coming back. No, I want to take a gander at Jack Nicklaus' career against...Roger Federer.
After Novak Djokovic held off Federer from major No. 18 (which would have equaled Nicklaus' country club total of 18) I thought we should peer into the arcs of their careers to see who's been better.
First, some parameters.
I think it's probably easier to win a tennis tournament than a golf tournament. In tennis, you don't have to beat all you opponents, just the ones the draw spits out at you -- and that's without any upsets to speak of.
In golf, you have to beat 150 (or more) other guys. Every week. If one of 150 beats you, you don't win. At Wimbledon this year Novak Djokovic beat just seven other guys before hoisting the trophy with the pineapple on top.
Only four of those were even ranked.
But when we're looking at careers between golf and tennis, time is your great equalizer. That is, at age 32 Roger Federer is close to done (if not done) winning majors. At age 32 Jack Nicklaus was only halfway to his 18 majors.
So I think over the course of a career, time cancels out any advantage great tennis players might have built in via the nature of tennis tournaments.
All that to say this: I think top 10 finishes in golf majors are equivalent to a tennis player making it to the semis of a grand slam. Wins are wins, obviously, and making it to the finals of a tennis grand slam event and losing is like finishing top five at a major in golf.
Maybe that's not the most scientific way to do it but it feels like the most logical.
With that in mind, let's take a look at these two all-timers.
61 grand slams played
17 grand slams won (28 percent)
25 finals (41 percent)
35 semifinals (57 percent)
Those are some gaudy numbers. The percentages will likely decline as the sun sets on Federer's career but for him to have made the finals in 41 percent of the grand slams he's entered since 1999 is borderline comical.
Visually the run is just as spectacular:
So much green.
164 majors played
18 majors won (11 percent)
56 top 5s (34 percent)
73 top 10s (45 percent)
A tad less crazy but Nicklaus was playing in majors well into his 50s and even 60s so those hurt his percentages. Viscerally, his run is shocking:
Tiger never had (and never will have) that run Nicklaus put together in the 1970s. He played 40 majors and finished top 10 in 35 of them. Get out of here with that.
The thing about Nicklaus, too, is that he's done it everywhere. Six green jackets, four US Opens, three British Opens, and five PGA Championships.
If you want to knock Federer you can knock him for never beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open. The only time Federer has ever won that tournament is when Nadal was beat by Robin Soderling in 2009.
What might be most shocking is the streaks these two men have gone on in just playing majors. Federer is at 59 straight grand slams and counting. Nicklaus played in 157 straight majors from the 1957 US Open to the 1998 US Open.
That's insanely impressive.
So even after going through the numbers I'm not sure who was (or is) better. Both repeatedly beat living legends at the peak of their powers. For Nicklaus it was Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. For Federer it's Djokovic and Nadal.
Both went on major streaks the likes of which we might never see again. For Federer it was 2004 Wimbledon to the 2010 Australian Open when he only missed three finals. Three!
You can pick one of Nicklaus' stretches but for me it's probably from 1970 t0 1975 when he finished first or second 11 times in majors.
And both dominated at their sport's most prestigious venue. For Federer it's been on the lush carpet outside of London. For Nicklaus it was the lush(er) carpet outside of Atlanta. That probably matters in the big scheme of things.
I never got to see Nicklaus play -- for I was born a year before his last one at Augusta -- but if it was half the pleasure it's been to watch Federer do his thing then I know it was something spectacular.
This is a debate I'm glad to open but feel less credentialed when it comes to declaring a country club champion for all-time.
So have at it, folks. And enjoy the debate.