Deciding between Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the most significant Masters performer of all time is not a tap-in. Each in his own way has made this tournament a personal platform for greatness. Woods is the far more culturally important player, while Nicklaus is the more titled one.
Do you side with the youngest-ever winner: Woods was just 21 in 1997 when he lapped the field by 12 strokes for his first major championship and became an important symbol in a monochromatic sport, whether he wanted that or not.
Or are you a rank sentimentalist and go for the oldest-ever champion: Nicklaus was presumed competitively dead and gone when he arose on the back nine on Masters Sunday in 1986 to win at the age of 46. The man was indomitable – he finished T6 when he was 58.
To judge by the roars when Nicklaus won then to those when Woods came back from the abyss of his personal flaws and physical breakdowns to win last year’s Masters, there is no clear people’s favorite. They both can make like Eric Clapton on the heartstrings.
- Jack Nicklaus. Bow to The Golden Bear, now 80, as is his eternal place in the golfing hierarchy. His six Masters wins trumps all. Factor in his record 37 cuts made and 15 top-five finishes at Augusta should you require further evidence. He should have a bridge with his name on it somewhere on the property, even if they have to install a pond on the front 9. And, besides, his win in 1986 remains No. 1 as one old coot's best sports moment, period.
- Tiger Woods. He never will catch Nicklaus' Masters win total (just a feeling he surely can't have another one in him), nor will he get the three majors necessary to catch the Bear's 18. But he is still pretty good, what with that 12-stroke margin of victory in '97 and the completion of the Tiger Slam (four major titles held in a one-year period) with his Masters win in 2001. And he is certainly becoming more likable as he ages. Case in point, the photo he posted Tuesday of his faux Champions Dinner at his place in South Florida, attended by his two kids, his girlfriend and a snazzy replica Masters trophy instead of the usual relics he would have been hosting in Augusta. Pretty cool.
- Arnold Palmer. C'mon, there can't be anyone with a beating heart who could not put him up here. He's Arnold Freakin' Palmer, the guy who made the Masters cool, the telegenic one when TV sports was coming of age. The late Mr. Palmer connected to fans in a fashion that was no way artificial (ahem, Mr. Mickelson). Oh, and he won the thing four times.
- Gary Player. He can be a little insufferable on the topic of his own well-being – no, Gary, as a matter of fact no one here wants to have a push-up contest with you right now. But something worked. Among this tournament's three-time winners, Player stands alone in sheer stubbornness, as in a record 52 Masters appearances and a streak of 23 consecutive made cuts. As pointed out by PGATour.com's Bolton, there was a 41-year span between his first made cut (1957) and his last (1998).
- Phil Mickelson. Three of Mickelson's five major wins have come at the Masters, his special relationship with this tournament is undeniable. We keep waiting for him to supplant Nicklaus as its oldest champion. He's 49 now, and that just may not happen. But what a great run he's had – his 15 top-10 finishes there is one more than Woods.
(Surprise honorable mention: The first three-time winner of the Masters, Jimmy Demaret (1940, 1947, 1950). He may be one of the more colorful contestants ever, both in wardrobe and wit. Just wanted an excuse to get in this quote for how he described his military duty during WWII: "Every war has a slogan. 'Remember the Alamo,' or 'Remember Pearl Harbor.' Mine was, 'That'll play, admiral.'")