How about rounds under par? You'd expect a course's king to "own it," and proof of ownership comes in the form of red numbers on white scoreboards. Nicklaus, the book tells us, posted a remarkable 71 under-par rounds in the Masters. That's way more than Watson and Ray Floyd (57), Player (51), Fred Couples (46), Ben Crenshaw (44), Palmer (41), Snead and Mickelson (40), Hogan (38) or Woods (35). But is it a fair benchmark? No, because Mickelson and Woods (and possibly Couples) can still pad their numbers.
So how about percentage of rounds under par? Brace yourself. The King of Augusta, based upon this metric, is . . . Mickelson! Lefty has broken par 40 times in 70 Masters rounds (57%), which is a tad better than Tiger, who is 35 for 62 (56%). The problem, again, is that Nicklaus (44%) and Palmer (27%) played into their dotage. You'd have to throw out all their scores over the age of—I don't know, 46?—to make a meaningful comparison.
Besides, statistics don't tell the whole story. I cleverly threw in that 46 to remind you that Nicklaus's triumph at the '86 Masters, more than a decade after he'd won his fifth green jacket, is thought, by many, to be the single greatest achievement in golf history. Sandy Lyle, Jack's final-round playing partner, remembered the cheers from the National crowd as "more than stereo. It was coming from behind you, sideways, forward, echoing all around you. . . . It just raised the hair on the back of your neck."
But you have to weigh the nostalgia of '86 against the euphoria of '60, when Palmer, with a contingent of Fort Gordon soldiers cheering for him, birdied the final two holes to nip Ken Venturi by a stroke. Palmer, it says in a book by Ian O'Connor (Arnie & Jack), was "the perfect American star. He was the Marlboro Man chain-smoking L&Ms. He was a clean-cut Elvis whose contortions were appropriate for all viewing audiences. More than anything, he was a swing-for-the-heavens slugger at a time when America was first fathoming the possibility of putting a man on the moon."
Damn, I'm thinking, this is hard to score. It gets even harder when I throw in "most memorable Masters shots," because any sane person's top five will include Tiger's 16th-hole, 90-degree-trickling chip-in of 2005 and Phil's 13th-hole, off-the-pine-straw, between-the-trees, over-the-creek-to-three-feet six-iron of 2010.
That's what I'm thinking when my gaze drifts back to the Masters Media Guide, still open on my desk. There has to be a tiebreaker, right? And the fairest tiebreaker is score. Not career score, because our four finalists haven't played the same number of rounds. But how about average score? Tiger's Masters average is 70.81, better than a stroke under par. Phil's average is 70.99, also impressive. But Arnie's stroke average—and here we stumble again on the longevity loophole—is 74.53. Palmer played five Masters as a septuagenarian, and he bid adieu in 2004 with two rounds of 84. "I'm through," he said with a smile. "I've had it. I'm done. Cooked. Washed up. Finished."
But just out of curiosity, I flick the page back to Nicklaus's line, and ... Holy s---. His Masters scoring average is 71.98. Can that be right? Is that even possible? That one number tells us that this guy played a major championship for 4½ decades and finished under par! That one number also settles the argument. Jack Nicklaus is the real King of Augusta National.
If I need to support this verdict with additional exhibits, I give you the 1995 Masters, in which the Golden Bear, age 55, holed a five-iron for eagle on the par-4 5th hole. Uh, check that—he eagled the 5th twice that year, in rounds one and three. May I also point out that he had four runner-up finishes to go with those six wins? Then there's Augusta '98, where a 58-year-old Nicklaus, nursing a bum hip, made the crowd delirious with a final-round 68, during which he drew within two strokes of the lead. By tying for sixth, Jack. ...
But why go on? Knowing I'm right, I have put together the Order of Precedency (chart, left), which you would be foolish to challenge.
I can't wait to show this list to my grandson. That won't happen until I've conned him out of another scoop of Gold Medal Ribbon on a sugar cone.