The Masters of the Majors

At the Masters this week, the first golfers to tee it up will be Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player. Collectively, they been Masters champions 11 times, and their three ceremonial tee shots make the 2023 tournament official before they retire to wherever old champions go to watch it.

The Masters, which in my world is the beginning of the golf season, always revives the debate about who is history’s greatest golfer, and it’s always a two-horse race: Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.

Until last week.

That’s when Player threw his own name into the “greatest” debate during a tirade against Augusta National. In The Times of London, here’s part of what he said: “There’s no golfer who’s ever had a tougher life than I have. I’ve won more tournaments than any man alive. I’ve won more national opens than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer put together. I’ve done remarkable things.”

Grouchy Gary, now 87, is upset because Augusta won’t let him bring friends and family to play Augusta when he wishes…and that means his carefully polished image is forever tarnished. Despite his arrogant rant, and if you use golf’s majors as the yardstick as most people do, there is no longer a debate about who’s greatest.

It’s Jack Nicklaus.

The challenge by Woods to surpass the 18 majors Nicklaus won is over. Tiger is stalled at 15, winning just one major in the last 15 years! Still, wishful thinkers remain. I’m not one of them. Besides his 18 victories, Nicklaus was second 19 times (one of them as an amateur) in the four majors: the Masters, British Open, U.S. Open and PGA Championship! Woods finished second seven times. So the champion plus runner-up scoreboard reads: Nicklaus 37, Woods 22. Also, Nicklaus played 146 majors in a row. Woods’ longest streak is 46, or 100 fewer. Just as an aside, Gary Player won nine majors.

Since Nicklaus and Woods are both “distant replays” now, I dug deeper and compared the first 25 years of their pro careers (neither won again after year 25). Nicklaus never missed a major. Woods missed 18. Nicklaus made the cut 95 per cent of the time, Woods 88 per cent. In top-10 finishes alone, Nicklaus had more (67 to 41) and — playing in 19 more majors because a COVID cancellation cost Tiger another one — a higher percentage (67 to 50).

Neither missed the cut in his first 25 Masters and Nicklaus made it 35 before he missed at age 54. It’ll be interesting to see if Woods can extend his streak of 26 this week in yet another attempt (his fourth) to tie Big Jack for most Masters (6) victories.

As for spectacular finishes, they’re tied at the top. In 1986, Nicklaus won his final major with an unforgettable Sunday back nine to become, at 46, the oldest Masters winner. In 1997, Woods shot a front-nine 40 on Thursday, then shockingly set a tournament-record 15 under par and won by 12 to become, at 21, the youngest.

Tiger’s remarkable achievements, magnetic appeal and impact on the game will always reserve a special place for him among the greatest golfers. He just won’t be first.

And neither will Grouchy Gary.