SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- The cool thing about sports is the numbers. They tell us who won, and how well everyone did. It is all so neat and clean, without a drop of ambiguity.
Performance in sports, unlike in many other areas of life, is just so darn measurable that an evaluation of effort is virtually a science. Problems only arise when we can't decide which numbers to use as the measuring stick. Will future sluggers be chasing the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris, or will they be in pursuit of the suspect records set in the steroid era?
In golf, there is this quandary: If Tiger Woods wins the PGA Championship this week, will it be his 14th major title, moving him past Bobby Jones into second place behind Jack Nicklaus, or will it be his 11th, putting Woods in a tie with Walter Hagen for second place? It all depends on what you want to call a major, and the predicament exists, primarily, because of one man: Jones.
Almost everyone views the record for career major championships as the 18 professional majors won by Nicklaus. The problem is that in addition to the six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens that Jack won, he also captured two U.S. Amateur titles, giving him 20 majors, by one count.
For his part, Woods has won four Masters, plus the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship twice each, giving him 10 professional majors. But Tiger also won the U.S. Amateur three times, meaning he might really own 13 major titles.
Our job here is to figure out whether Tiger has 10 majors in pursuit of Jack's record 18 or 13 -- seven shy of the 20 won by Nicklaus.
The easiest thing to do is to limit the discussion to just professional majors. We are, after all, talking about the pros here. On that list, Nicklaus has 18, followed by Hagen with 11 (by the way, is there a more underrated player than Sir Walter?), then Woods with 10, and Ben Hogan and Gary Player with nine.
Purists point out, however, that the Masters did not even exist until 1934, and at one time the Western Open was considered a major. These are the same folks who argue that the U.S. Amateur should be considered a major. That point of view would have absolutely no merit if not for Jones. When you count his U.S. Amateur and British Amateur titles, Bobby Jones is second on the all-time list at 13, tied with Woods behind Nicklaus' 20. Without the amateur titles, Jones' total drops to seven, moving him into a tie for seventh place on the career list with Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer.
There is another tiny factor that provides an argument for golf to count the amateur titles among career majors. If you don't include them, the game loses its only Grand Slam -- the sweep by Jones in 1930 of the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs. That accomplishment elevated the amateur titles by linking them to the two Opens. But was it really a Grand Slam, or was that merely an easy term to hang on a remarkable accomplishment?
The fact is, no one -- male or female -- has ever won four professional major championships in the same year. Tiger won four in a row over two seasons, and that is as close as we've come. In the year Jones won four major titles, he did not play in what was arguably the most difficult of the majors to win -- the PGA Championship, which not only had a great field but also was a grueling match-play test. And, oh by the way, the PGA was being dominated around that time by the two best players in the world -- Hagen and Sarazen, who won seven PGA titles between them in 12 years.
Without the six amateur titles won by Jones, and without his sweep of the four majors available to him in 1930, there likely would be no debate about the record for career majors. It would be 18, plain and simple. After all, when you start counting the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur as majors, it moves John Ball up to a tie for fifth with Hogan and Player on the career majors list. Ball won the British Open in 1890 -- and the British Amateur eight times.
There is no question Jones has messed up this debate horribly, but it might be that he has done us a service, as well -- one beyond giving us a renewed respect for John Ball, that is. By bringing up the issue of whether to included the amateur titles in the count of career majors, it focuses light on one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of golf -- the three consecutive U.S Amateurs won by Woods. Think about that: He won 18 consecutive match-play contests over three years. All you need to do is have one bad day or run into one guy with a hot putter and you are out. The wonderful thing about match play is there is no tomorrow in which to make up for a bad round. That accomplishment by Woods is simply too monumental to ignore, especially when you consider it followed his triumph in three consecutive U.S. Junior Championships, meaning Woods won USGA national championships in six consecutive years, all in match play.
Yes, count me among those who feel that Woods has 13 career majors and is chasing the record 20 held by Nicklaus. Of course, we could add in those three U.S. Junior titles won by Woods -- then he has 16 majors. But opening that can of worms would mean we'd have to go back and see how many British Junior titles Ball won.
We have to draw the line somewhere. So here it is: Tiger has 13 majors, is tied for second with Jones, in pursuit of the record 20 held by Nicklaus. To view it otherwise would be to devalue Jones, and to overlook a remarkable achievement by Woods. Tiger is going for his 14th major this week at the PGA Championship.
That is, unless you want to count those three junior titles
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine