One of the concepts that I find difficult about doing this writing thing is that sometimes I have to accept that what I'm thinking about and would like to write about is exactly what everyone else is thinking and writing about. So after being paralyzed for about two weeks because all I really felt like writing about was Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, I realized that there's no harm in chiming in on something that everyone seems to want to talk about anyway.
(Understand that by everyone, I mean everyone who cares about men's professional golf in the shrinking twilight of Tiger Woods' Era of Dominance. Which, if Forbes and ESPN and other media outlets are to be believed, is a rapidly shrinking number of middle-aged and older white men who might actually understand A- why you would have twin bathtubs on a vineyard hilltop, and B- why you would bother taking Cialis if you were sitting in one.)
But... This is supposed to be about Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, and the 18 professional major championship victories of Jack Nicklaus' remarkable career. Since Rory's Open Championship win at Royal Liverpool, the question of whether he could be the one to eclipse Nicklaus' record rather than Tiger has been debated somewhat incessantly. He is only the third man to win 3 different majors before turning 26. (The other two? The other two.) After he wins the PGA Championship this week at Valhalla in Kentucky (designed by Nicklaus, won on previously by Woods), the golf media will be in full blitz mode for the Masters in April, and the question of who might someday break Nicklaus' record will have remarkably shifted from Tiger to Rory in less than one year.
Comparisons between eras are pointless to me in a game in which the equipment and the actual playing field evolves over time. Could Jack in his prime defeat Tiger in his prime? Could Ben Hogan at his peak take down Tiger at his? Would Phil Mickelson or Tom Watson defeat them all in 4 rounds at their respective best? How about McIlroy? Or Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen? How many Masters tournaments would Lee Trevino have won if he could have hit modern fairway hybrids instead of 2-irons ("Even G-d can't hit a 1-iron")? How about the globetrotting Gary Player in the modern age of private jet travel? The permutations are infinite, which makes the place these men occupy in golf history that much more fascinating and relevant.
Walter Hagen barnstormed the fledgling professional circuit, legendary as much for his non-golf activities as his victories. Bobby Jones straddled the age of Amateurism and Professionalism and defeated all comers. Gene Sarazen invented the sand wedge. Sam Snead and Byron Nelson combined their classic technique with the consistency of steel shafts. Hogan became the the first, and likely greatest, swing technician.
Jack Nicklaus was a young, married, midwestern guy who played golf with power like no one before him. He was famous, but his life was not defined by stories of him posting a list of Ben Hogan's majors on his childhood bedroom wall as a goal for him to rival or surpass. If there had been, Hogan probably would have shown up at Jack's house himself to rip the list down and force the boy Nicklaus to eat it. When Jack was winning 18 professional major titles from 1962 through 1986, no one was counting for any particular reason. He just won, or finished second (18 times!), or third (9). The numbers stand as a career accomplishment that only grows in stature as time goes on, golf's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Nicklaus came along with an upright swing plane, a non-traditional "flying" right elbow, and a midwestern football body. He kept his swing arc high and wide, with a pronounced "reverse C" finish. His intent was to keep his clubface along the target line as long as possible. As a result, he was able to hit long irons longer and higher than anyone else. He hit high fades instead of the low draws of Texas and Scotland. He could attack pins that no one else could attack, but he played a conservative strategic game and never shot himself out of contention. He could drive the ball 340 yards in Scotland 40 years ago with persimmon woods, or hit flagsticks at Pebble Beach using a 1-iron with a hitting surface barely larger than the ball itself. He wasn't renowned as a great putter, but he had a knack for making putts at opportune moments. He didn't have the short game flair of Trevino or Watson, or he probably would have won 25 majors. His major triumphs began in the age of forged blade irons and persimmon woods and heel shafted blade putters, and continued into the beginning of the modern age of perimeter-weighted irons and oversized metal drivers. When equipment made the game easier for his younger competitors, he still beat them.
Tiger Woods was not just a child prodigy. Tiger, up until 2008, was a tournament-golf-obsessed killing machine. He not only had power and technique to separate himself from the field, but he also had that little bit of wizardry like Watson, Seve Ballesteros, and Trevino. He hit the ball farther than anyone, but he could also successfully execute shots under pressure that no one else would even consider during a practice round. What was so enthralling about him wasn't just that he could hit a 3-wood beyond most pro's drivers, it was that he could hit it ten feet off the ground with a 30-yard fade or draw if he wanted to.
Tiger's swing changes have been dissected interminably over the years but at his peak, in 2000-2001, he embodied what is likely the single greatest combination of instinctive golfer and dedicated swing technique that will ever coexist. Combine the contents of Ben Hogan's masterful book "Five Lessons - The Modern Fundamentals of Golf," and Nicklaus' "Golf My Way," throw in a short game to rival Trevino or Watson, consistent putting as well as Nicklaus' ability to make long putts at the most opportune moments, and the result is a golfer who should have won every time he entered a tournament, and who practically did. Tiger's swing from this period utilizes Hogan's technical principles, but adapts them to a free safety's body capable of implementing them along Nicklaus' upright swing plane. Tiger's later winning streaks and his major wins under Hank Haney's tutelage are still impressive, yes, but the sheer perfection of his action in 2000-2001, while it may someday be equalled, will likely never be outdone.
If Tiger Woods never wins another major, he will still stand as the golfer with the most dominating stretch of elite level performance. He won 14 majors from 1997 to 2008. But... that span is only 11 years compared to Nicklaus' 24.
The longevity of Nicklaus' contention at the majors is just as impressive as the number of championships. Tom Watson won 8 major championships in an 8-year stretch from 1975-1983 that nearly rivals Tiger's. Nicklaus won his first major, the 1962 US Open, 13 years before Watson won his first Open Championship in 1975, and won his 18th at the Masters in 1986, at 46, 3 years after Watson won his last in 1983. Jack defeated Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, but he also defeated (and was defeated by) Watson, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, etc. Greg Norman was early in his prime when Nicklaus held him off at the 1986 Masters.
Unless Tiger gets healthy and fixes the demons that seem to be plaguing his driver and putter, he will not have taken down a peaking Rory McIlroy in a major duel, or won multiple majors against the next wave of competition looking to take him down. Giving Nicklaus the same timespan as Woods' major victories would leave Jack never winning another major after the ascension of Watson in 1975. (That sentence gets more ridiculous each time I read it.)
Rory McIlroy... well, we'll see. He's a guy in his mid 20s, who isn't afraid of young women and public life and having a good time. He's suffered through the personal and professional trials of early fame and has emerged from the cauldron with guns blazing. He has clearly shown that when he is playing well, he is capable of playing more aggressively than anyone else and decimating the field. When he's off, he's capable of shooting himself out of a tournament with a round in the mid or high 70s, although he didn't do it at the recent Open Championship, nor did he do it in his come-from-behind victory at Firestone in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this past week.
Rory is a product of the new age of golf swing principles and equipment. He hits the ball hard. He doesn't try to work the ball with conservative plays as Nicklaus often did (as well as Tiger, who often strategized his way around a course even while he was overpowering it). At Rory's best, he takes out his driver and crushes the ball consistently and confidently to places that course designers couldn't have fathomed, which can make the game pretty easy. He's a competent putter if not a gifted one, and his short game is at a similar level. In an age of athletes who are golfers, he is a golfing prodigy who is athletic.
The overused "He plays a game with which I am not familiar" quote from Bobby Jones about Nicklaus, who later paraphrased the same about Woods, may not necessarily apply to McIlroy though. He still strikes me as more of an evolution than a revolution. He isn't necessarily playing a different game than everyone else. It's just that his best is way better.
Will he win like Tiger or Jack? It's hard to say. He is a natural swinger, not a technician, more Snead than Hogan, more Mickelson than Woods. He will have days and periods of time where he is just a little off. Like Tiger, wind is a bit of an Achilles' heel for him, which is odd considering that he comes from Northern Ireland, and he has yet to win while overcoming even moderately difficult weather conditions (which there won't be in Louisville this weekend). He will likely have stretches where his putting will let him down, and there will be tournaments that get away because he doesn't have quite the magic in his short game to steal a tournament the way Tiger was able to do (see Tiger Woods vs Chris DiMarco, 16th hole, Augusta 2005).
Will he complete a career Grand Slam with a win at the Masters? Almost certainly. Will he challenge the major win totals of the greats of the game? With 3 already, and probably a 4th this week, it's not unreasonable to think that the 8-10 major Pantheon range is very, very likely. Will he challenge Tiger? If Tiger doesn't win any more of them, which is looking more and more likely, it's quite possible.
Will he challenge Nicklaus? Rory's going to win a lot, over a long period of time, and he will certainly make us wonder. If Tiger can't do it, though, it's unlikely that Rory will. There are too many good players, too many potential life distractions, too many injury risks with the stress generated by modern swing speeds. Nicklaus was a Revolutionary golfer in the Golden Age of tournament golf. Tiger was a Revolutionary golfer in the Modern Age. Rory, as an Evolution, will eventually likely be challenged the next Revolution, whatever or whomever that may be.
When he wins this week at Valhalla, though, and then at Augusta in April, buckle up. The McIlSlam cometh.