Greg Norman was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for a then-record 96 consecutive weeks before Tiger Woods hit the scene in 1996. Woods took the top spot in the world from Norman for a week in '97, relinquished it to David Duval in 1999 after 41 straight weeks, then eventually wrangled it back later in the year for an astounding 264 weeks -- only to be outdone by a 281-week run beginning in June 2005.
Norman has 20 PGA Tour wins. Woods has 79 and is still counting.
Norman has two majors. Woods has 14 and may still have some counting to do.
So when Norman told Golf magazine that he could beat Woods had they competed in the same era, it's kind of hard to take it seriously.
"A lot of people ask how I'd stack up against today's players if I had use of modern equipment," Norman said. "Listen, it's not about the gear. Winning is about what's in your heart and in your head. Equipment dictates how to play the game in an era, but the physical and mental skills are the same. And I had them. I never feared anything or anyone on the course, and I wasn't afraid to fail. So I think I'd do pretty well against Snead, Hogan, Tiger and Phil -- whoever. Tiger's a tough guy, but I was a tough guy on the course, too. I probably would have beat him."
Delusion and ego aside, Norman's view on modern equipment seems to buck the trend of what most current PGA Tour players that played at the end of the Shark's era would say about the value of their sticks. It's been repeated time and time again, including by the likes of Woods, that modern equipment has made domination more difficult because the gear is so well designed and manufactured that it somewhat levels the playing field.
When metalwoods really took hold in the early 90s, leading into the era of titanium-faced drivers, the distance gains were seen largely at the top of charts -- the long guys getting even longer. Over time, however, improved designed and more data have allowed the laggards to enjoy that same distance gain, too.
Golf balls have been designed now to spin less off the tee and spin a little more around the greens, despite the grooves regulations approved in 2008. The ball has been optimized for the kind of golf played on the PGA Tour. There may not be a single standard tour ball as Jack Nicklaus has called for at times -- particularly at the Masters -- but the trend to design to a tour-caliber player has created a smaller variance in quality among manufacturers, leading to less of a gap between players.
In other words, the equipment is now more vital in helping PGA Tour players cover up their flaws than ever.
That's to say nothing of the benefits to players from what's been learned through the diligent and illuminating research that has translated to improved golf fitness and swing mechanics. And that's to say nothing of the stats revolution quietly taking place in the sport (which we'll get into sooner than later). The wealth of information available to players about how to stay in shape, how to optimize their games and their tendencies have made them better.
And all of that is to say nothing of the globalization of the professional game and the overall improvement in the talent level of an average to below-average touring pro. The worst of the really good is just better than in the 80s, which is what creates the "any given Sunday" environment on the PGA Tour.
Greg Norman is a tough guy. He's an all-time great. But Woods has dominated in an era where it is harder to win than it ever has been. The Shark won 20 times in an age without a truly dominant player, at least in the sense Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus were and Woods is. The Shark basically had the PGA Tour career of Davis Love III, who was never uttered in the same sentence as Woods. Norman would not have been either.
Norman might have beaten Woods here and there, for a time, kind of like the Duvals, Singhs and Mickelsons have -- in spurts. But Norman would never have consistently beaten Woods.
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