Now this is what we call a major golf event: Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, all coming off wins in their last outings, all playing this week at Jack’s place, Muirfield Village. Nicklaus is the leader in the clubhouse with 18 majors and two Memorial titles. McIlroy is next, with four majors and no gray coats. Spieth has two majors, no Memorials. Day—married to an Ohio girl and an adopted Buckeye, despite the Aussie accent—has one major and no victories in Dublin, Ohio. And so the debate begins: Who among those three is the best golfer?
The time has come to refine the question. What do you mean by the best golfer? Tiger Woods is the best golfer the world has ever seen, but Jack Nicklaus is the best golfer of all time. It’s an opinion, people, and the contradiction can be explained: Tiger’s best was better than anybody else’s best, and you could argue that Woods had to beat more good golfers to get his 14 majors than Nicklaus did to get his 18. But Nicklaus had to beat more great golfers, and the longevity of his career, to say nothing of how he carried himself through it, puts him in a category that Woods is not likely to reach. So what are we asking here? Are we asking who is playing the best golf right now? Are we asking who among those three is going to retire with the most wins?
Of the new big three—the trio has not yet earned capital-letter designation—I would argue that McIlroy is the best. That is, he will retire with the most wins and the most majors. First of all, he announced his greatness at such a young age, as the best of the best usually do. (Ben Hogan would be a notable exception.) Playing in professional events as an amateur at 16 and 17, he had a touring pro’s swing and the complete game.
When he won his fourth major, the PGA in 2014, Rory was 25. That puts you in the Nicklaus-Woods conversation. To stay there you have to keep it going for the next decade or two. Not easy. But in golf, it is useful to take a long view. You’ve been hoodwinked by Golf Channel and the PGA Tour into thinking that year-to-date statistics are meaningful. (And speaking of meaningful, how about Spieth’s needing only nine putts on the back nine at Colonial on Sunday, en route to his eighth Tour victory. Let's repeat the timing here: on the back nine on Sunday, in the day's final group, trying to win in his home state for the first time, with every eye on him, and the TV cameras too.) I would say, in terms of assessing McIlroy’s chances at the Memorial, that his eagle-on-the-last May 22 win at the Irish Open is close to meaningless. Tiger fooled people into thinking that professional golf could be handicapped. It can’t.
McIlroy has what Spieth does not, a big-time power game, with the strength to gouge shots out of the rough and reach par-5s with second-shot 8-irons. Still, I would consider Spieth the second-best of this appealing trio, in large measure because of his grit, both personal and professional, and also because of his putting. We’ve been watching him for three or more years now. Since Woods, have you ever seen anybody make more meaningful putts from 25 feet and in? This is why putting stats can be so misleading—they cannot allow for the emotion and import of the moment.
Yes, the Masters was a debacle. It will only help Spieth, who seems to be motivated by something beyond fame and fortune, make more meaningful putts. Someday, his stroke will be less perfect, his ability to read putts will deteriorate, his desire to will putts into the hole will be less intense. You can’t predict when any of that will come, but there’s no reason to think it will be anytime soon.
Spieth’s golfing character had already announced itself by age 21, just as Tiger’s did. Two majors left him nothing like satisfied. In the three majors since his U.S. Open win last year at Chambers Bay, Spieth finished a shot of a playoff, was second and tied for second. The question is not, Why didn’t he get it done? In fact, there is no question at all. There is just this statement: You win majors by giving yourself chances, and Spieth will be the master of that for a long time to come.
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Which brings us to Day, and his remarkable life story and his unlikely ascension to world No. 1, earned—truly earned—with his impressive win last year at the PGA at Whistling Straits and this year at the Players. He’s 28, a late bloomer compared to the other two. His game far more resembles McIlroy’s than Spieth’s.
There is a shorter track record on which to judge Day. Of the three, he is the one you are most likely to say that past performance does not predict future results. He and his wife, Ellie, have two young children. In Nicklaus’s day, being “settled” was said to be a good thing for a touring pro’s golf, what with all the nocturnal distractions the life brought. Nobody says that anymore. Day may decide that, in his off weeks, he’d rather drive the kids to school than drive to the range. Arnold Palmer speaks of a golfer’s “edge,” when one has it, whatever it is, and when one loses it. Right now, I would say Day has the sharpest edge. Right now is a meaningful way to look at a tournament or a season. But not a career.
Anyway, having these big three in our golfing lives right now, and trying to predict their futures, is a nice problem to have.