Since tomorrow is mail bag day, today is going to have to serve as the big Masters Preview Day. The pairings come out this afternoon and later we’ll feature those, go through some odds & ends and make a selection. The bottom line is, if you don’t like golf, or if in a more troubling turn of events you don’t like the Masters…See you Tomorrow! To kick things off, a look at Jack Nicklaus and fandom.
In the last two years, Jack Nicklaus has solidified his status as the greatest golfer of all-time. Tiger’s pursuit of his record 18 Majors took a blow, but more than that with what happened to Tiger off the course a lot of people will now never let him surpass Jack in their minds. I consider myself a late-arriving Nicklaus fan. This is going to sound funny, but the first I ever heard of the ’86 Masters was when Mike Schmidt was talking about it in his 500th home run video. That’s the truth. I knew who Nicklaus was, but I didn’t know the significance of ’86. My memories of Nicklaus actually playing golf are limited to his Senior Tour domination, his occasional runs at Augusta after ’86 (His t-8th at 58 in 1998 comes to mind), and his farewell tour. Because golf is so aware of its history, I’ve been able to absorb the details of Jack’s prime after the fact. I could now tell you how the ’86 Masters played out shot-by-shot.
Watching Jack’s career in retrospect, it is simple to just appreciate the greatness. The success, the poise, the fearlessness under pressure, the sportsmanship can all be viewed through an unadulterated lens. It’s not shaped by the media coverage of the day, I don’t have strong allegiances to any of Jack’s rivals, so it’s simple to just take the greatness for what it was. There’s no Jack fatigue, no Jack bitterness. But, what if I had been a teenager during Jack’s prime? Would I feel the same way about his career?
I have an almost perfect track record of not rooting for the best in a certain sport. Michael Jordan? Eh. Gretzky? No Thanks. Tiger Woods? Negative. Now, a lot of this can be attributed to team loyalty, but my distaste of athletes who win too much has spread into the individual sports. The most dominant player I ever rooted for actively in their prime was probably Pete Sampras. Would Jack have won me over like Sampras, or would I have been the often disappointed Tom Weiskopf fan? The various factors…
The Palmer Issue: Most people who don’t like Jack can trace it back to his supplanting of Arnold Palmer at the top of the game. If you were a Palmer fan, there’s a chance you never really warmed up to Nicklaus. I know people who still think Arnold Palmer is the working class hero and Jack Nicklaus is the spoiled country club kid. Of course, Palmer’s been flying his own plane around for about 50 years, but it’s hard to change that first impression. I’ve never quite gotten into Palmer so I going to trust that instinct and say I wouldn’t have been a Palmer guy.
Jack’s Game: I am very appreciative of certain styles of play and very dismissive of others. If you take a look at the golfers I’ve liked through the years, they’ve all been superior ball-strikers. Jack was without a doubt a great ball-striker, but two of his chief rivals (Trevino and Watson) were considered among of the best strikers of all-time. I also like to see the occasional flaw (see Fred’s short-putting woes) and that’s harder to find in Jack’s game. At the beginning of his career, Jack was considered a poor pitcher and chipper of the ball but this was a skill he only had to utilize about three times a round. I’d say Jack’s game wouldn’t exclude me from rooting for him, but it doesn’t make it a lock either.
The Other Options: You’ve got to root for someone. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve spent many recent golf tournaments rooting against players or rooting for an implosion. I’m old and hardened now, though. For the sake of this exercise I am actively looking for a player to pull for. So, if not Jack, then who? The Candidates:
Billy Casper: Casper won 3 Majors, 51 Tour Events and is probably the most underrated player of all-time. I like underachieving more than underrated. Pass on Casper.
Gary Player: Player was perhaps the games first truly great global player. But, I can’t stand Gary Player. I can’t imagine it would have been any different had I first encountered him in the 60s.
Lee Trevino: Trevino was colorful, entertaining and as I mentioned a great ball-striker. But, there’s no way I could ever really root for a guy that hits a low cut. Sorry, Lee.
Johnny Miller: Miller had one of the most concentrated runs of greatness in the history of the game. In 1974 and 1975 Miller won 12 tournaments. His two majors came on the opposite ends of this great run. Miller was one of the best iron players ever and reminds me a bit of David Duval, who I am a fan of. A possibility.
Tom Watson: Watson in nine years Nicklaus’ junior and by the time he picked up his first win in 1974, Jack already had 12 Majors. For the next decade+, they’d have a great rivalry, Watson secured 8 majors to Jack’s 6 over that span and often won at Jack’s expense. Watson’s pristine ball-striking made him a British Open legend, and his first prime was cut short by a horrible case of the yips. Endearing.
The Final Verdict:
I think this might have come down to a matter of timing. If I had gotten in early enough on Nicklaus that I wouldn’t feel like a front-runner I think I would have been on board. If I was born in 1957, I think Jack’s my man. If it had been ’67, I think Watson might have lured me away.