Federer V. Nicklaus: Most Tennis & Golf Grand Slam Championships

Enough election politics for now. Back to my August sports kick.

Roger Federer comes into the U.S. Open with a record 17 victories in tennis`s four annual Grand Slam major championships (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open). The 31-year-old Swissman is trying to open up distance between himself and younger stars Rafael Nadal (11 majors) and Novak Djokovic (5). 

To my mind, however, the interesting angle is that he has a shot at tying Jack Nicklaus`s record of 18 majors in the two big country club sports, tennis and golf. (Golf also has four Grand Slam events per year, the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA.) Tiger Woods has been chasing Nicklaus`s mark his whole life, but Federer may beat him to it.

Combining the lists of top men`s major champions of all time into an apples and oranges table gives a sense, that, yes, this isn`t a completely apples and oranges compilation:

Jack Nicklaus Golf 18
Roger Federer Tennis 17
Pete Sampras Tennis 14
Tiger Woods Golf 14
Roy Emerson Tennis 12
Björn Borg Tennis 11
Rafael Nadal Tennis 11
Rod Laver Tennis 11
Walter Hagen Golf 11
Bill Tilden Tennis 10
Ben Hogan Golf 9
Gary Player Golf 9
Andre Agassi Tennis 8
Fred Perry Tennis 8
Ivan Lendl Tennis 8
Jimmy Connors Tennis 8
Ken Rosewall Tennis 8
Tom Watson Golf 8
Arnold Palmer Golf 7
Bobby Jones Golf 7
Gene Sarazen Golf 7
Harry Vardon Golf 7
Henri Cochet Tennis 7
John McEnroe Tennis 7
John Newcombe Tennis 7
Mats Wilander Tennis 7
René Lacoste Tennis 7
Richard Sears Tennis 7
Sam Snead Golf 7
William Larned Tennis 7
William Renshaw Tennis 7
Boris Becker Tennis 6
Don Budge Tennis 6
Jack Crawford Tennis 6
Laurence Doherty Tennis 6
Lee Trevino Golf 6
Nick Faldo Golf 6
Stefan Edberg Tennis 6
Tony Wilding Tennis 6
Byron Nelson Golf 5
Frank Sedgman Tennis 5
James Braid Golf 5
J.H. Taylor Golf 5
Novak Djokovic Tennis 5
Peter Thomson Golf 5
Seve Ballesteros Golf 5
Tony Trabert Tennis 5
Golf >= 5 18
Tennis >=5 29

I`d say that this list suggests that it`s a little bit easier to pile up a lot of Grand Slam titles in tennis than in golf, primarily because most people would agree that Tiger Woods (14 majors) is a better golfer than Pete Sampras (14, too) is a tennis player. 

In general, the all time great tennis players can win more often at the peak of their careers than the all time great golfers, because tennis is a less random, larger sample size sport. In any given major, the world`s best tennis player is usually more likely to win than the world`s best golfer. Tennis is kind of like tug-of-war, where the better team ought to win.

On the other hand, golf careers last much longer. Nicklaus won his first major at 22, his 16th and 17th majors at 40 and his 18th at 46 (the famous 1986 Masters). And one of these years somebody really old will win a golf major. Tom Watson missed winning the British Open at 59 in 2009 by inches. In 1974, Sam Snead finished third in the PGA, behind only Trevino and Nicklaus. 

In contrast, Federer is considered a miracle of rejuvenation to have won Wimbledon at 30. 

The age of first victory in a major is usually lower in tennis, supporting the common sense notion that tennis is a much tougher game physically, while golf may be somewhat tougher mentally.

Put it all together, and it seems pretty reasonable to note that Federer is challenging Nicklaus.

By the way, why are apples and oranges the canonical examples of things that shouldn`t be compared? Relative to every other possible pair of things, they seem pretty similar to me.

Sports History Minutia (for sports data methodology aficionados only): It`s hard comparing the number of major championships won by golfers and tennis players before 1968, when tennis opened up its Grand Slam events to professionals. Thus, the great Mexican-American tennis player Pancho Gonzales is credited with only two Grand Slam titles because he turned pro and spent about 15 years on the small pro tour. (He won 15 Pro Slam titles). Rod Laver would have 20 major championships, adding together amateur, pro, and open titles. On the other hand, that segregation of talent may overstate this era`s combined talent. Before 1968, Laver was never playing against all the top players in the world all at once. Then, again, in 1969, he won all four Grand Slam in open competition, the last time a man has done that. Laver was really good.

Golf has a lesser problem in that it`s not clear what to do with the British and U.S. Amateur titles. The term Grand Slam was invented in 1930 when Atlanta amateur golfer Bobby Jones won the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs. Golf historians usually credit him with 13 major championships instead of just the 7 he won in the Opens, as on this list. However, when Jones retired upon achieving his Grand Slam, the prestige of Amateur championships as they slowly turned into merely the premiere events for college golfers. Nicklaus, who idolized Jones, likes to count his two U.S. Amateur titles, giving him 20 major championships (and Woods 17, including his three U.S. Amateurs), but most people just count victories in the four majors currently open to professionals, a foursome stabilized by 1934. 

Two golfers have won three professional majors in one calendar year: Ben Hogan in 1953 and Tiger Woods in 2000. Woods winning four straight majors in 2000-2001 is clearly the greatest 12-month feat in golf history, although it still lacks an agreed-upon catchy title like Bobby Jones` Grand Slam. In contrast, tennis players have won three of the four grand slam titles in one calendar year 13 times, seven times since open competition began in 1968.

Americans possess an advantage in golf in that three of golf`s majors are played in the U.S., versus only one in tennis.

Golf courses can look radically different, especially the British Open courses, which are always played over gnarly-looking sand dunes next to the windy sea, versus The Masters` Augusta National, which is the prototype of the glossy inland course with trees and water hazards. Tennis courts are always identical in size, differing only in surface. Yet, at this point in history, golfers might be better at adapting to wildly different courses than tennis players are to different  surfaces.

Before the introduction of jetliners at the end of the 1950s, it wasn`t all that common for golfers and tennis players to think of making it to all four events. Top golfers crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners in the 1920s, but the British Open withered in the 1930s through the 1950s due to Depression, war, and austerity. Arnold Palmer`s decision to jet in for the British Open in 1960 revitalized that event.