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Like any good sports argument, this one starts in a bar. Well, not a bar, exactly. It's more of a . . . Baskin-Robbins. Anyway, this guy—my nine-year-old grandson—says, "Tiger Woods always wins the Masters, doesn't he, Papa?" And what am I supposed to do, pretend the guy knows what he's talking about?
But he's my grandson, so I dial back the sarcasm. I say, "Tiger hasn't won a green jacket since 2005, Jack.
But Philly Mick has won three of the last seven. That means Phil is flat-out the king of Augusta National."
That shuts him up.
Later, though, I get to thinking. Woods and Mickelson each have three Masters wins in the last decade, so they've sort of co-owned Augusta since the millennium. Push the time frame back to '97, and Tiger picks up another victory, that 12-stroke shellacking he gave the field in his first pro visit. So there definitely is a case to be made for Woods as king of . . .
At which point I smack myself on the forehead. Duh! There's a king all right, and it's Arnold Palmer. That's his nickname—the King. You can't walk along the banks of Rae's Creek without thinking of Arnie's four Masters wins, not to mention a couple of his dramatic losses. And if those memories play out in black-and-white, that's because the age of television golf came to life at the '59 Masters, when the CBS cameras zeroed in on Arnie as he climbed the 15th fairway, hitching up his trousers, flipping his cigarette, making golf seem glamorous—dangerous, even. It's got to be Palmer.
That's when I remember that Jack Nicklaus won six Masters.
To settle the argument I get out my calculator, a yellow highlighter and my 2011 Masters Media Guide. First I pore over the "Masters Results" chapter, 40 pages long, which gives the lifetime records of the 1,143 golfers who have competed in the tournament since its inception in 1934. And right off, anticipating the too-cute argument that tournament founder and club president Bobby Jones was the King of Augusta, I see that he played in only 12 Masters, never broke par, averaged 76 strokes and never finished better than 13th. Jones was never the king of Augusta. He was the host.
Moving on, I make the executive decision that kingliness requires at least three victories. And just like that I've ruled out Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros—four Hall of Famers whose exploits in Amen Corner will never be forgotten. (Nelson and Hogan even have footbridges named for them, but they're covered with green outdoor carpet, not the rolled-out red carpet befitting a king.) My next gambit is to eliminate four of the three-time winners—Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Sir Nick Faldo. I agonize the most over Player because he holds the record for Masters appearances (52), and because he dethroned the putative king when Palmer double-bogeyed the 72nd hole in 1961. But Sir Nick is also a tough cut, if only because he's a card-carrying English knight. (Let's call Faldo the Earl of Muirfield in honor of his three British Open titles.)
Suddenly we're down to the four Masters heroes named above—Lefty, Tiger, Arnie and the Golden Bear. If we go by victory total, Nicklaus is our monarch by a two-win margin. If it's persistence that counts, Palmer, with 50 appearances, outlasts Nicklaus by five. If accumulated prize money is the test, Woods edges Mickelson, $6.47 million to $6.36 million. (But money is patently a ludicrous benchmark. Nicklaus earned less than a million on Augusta National's closely mowed fairways. Palmer, with total Masters earnings of $229,013, had to hawk cornflakes and motor oil to make ends meet.) If it's records you love, you can't overlook that Woods has the lowest 72-hole score (270) and the largest margin of victory (12), and he was also the youngest champion (21 years, three months, 14 days).