Can Rory McIlroy join the all-time greats list?

by Jordan J. Caron on November 7, 2014


Image Courtesy of TourProGolfClubs

If there’s one current golfer in the world who has the potential, at least, to join the list of the greatest golfers ever to have walked the world’s fairways, then it’s surely the young Ulsterman, Rory McIlroy.

But to get there – he has to win the Masters at least once.

McIlroy has already managed to do what only two other golfers have ever managed in winning three different Major championships by the young age of 25. And when you consider who those other two golfers were – you quickly understand why Rory McIlroy really could join the list of all-time greats. That’s because they were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Now these two men have own more Majors than any other players. The Golden Bear won a record 18 Majors titles during his long career – and remains four ahead of Tiger Woods. Perhaps what is even more impressive still is that Nicklaus also finished runner-up on no less than 19 separate occasions in Majors – a truly unbelievable record of 37 wins or seconds across 24 golden years of Major-winning golf at the top of his game between 1962 when he won the US Open and 1986 when he won his sixth Masters aged 46. In doing so – Nicklaus became the oldest-ever winner at Augusta, and the second-oldest victor in any Major (and for the record, the oldest ever was Julius Boros, who won the PGA in 1968 aged 48). This remarkable last win also gave Jack Nicklaus a record setting six Masters wins.

So Nicklaus must surely go down in history as the greatest player ever to swing a golf club. His overall record will surely never be equaled. And though the modern game is very different to the days in which Jack plied his trade, thanks mainly to changing technology in both the design of the golf clubs and, even more to the point, the technology associated with golf balls, his overall record remains completely peerless.

But there is one player who could catch him and that is, of course, Tiger Woods. Tiger needs four more Majors to equal Nicklaus’s record and he might just get them. Jack Nicklaus himself is on record as saying that he thinks Woods will equal his 18-Major feat. But if he is to do so – he’d better get going quickly. The plain truth is that Tiger Woods hasn’t managed to win a Major for over six years. For his last Major win, we have to go all the way back to the 2008 US open at Torrey Pines in LaJolla, California, when Tiger won by beating fellow American Rocco Mediate in an absolutely thrilling play-off.

So both Woods and Nicklaus have achieved career Grand Slams – winning all four Majors at different times. And in fact – they’ve both managed this remarkable feat three times over! During the modern era, no player has ever managed to achieve a season Grand Slam and, it has to be said, it seems highly unlikely that any player will achieve this. So when you think that Tiger Woods almost managed it – winning the four Majors consecutively in 2000-2001 (though they weren’t in the same calendar year) it’s an unbelievable feat.

So where does this leave us with Rory McIlroy? Well it has to be said it’s highly unlikely that he’ll get anywhere near Tiger Woods’ overall record, let alone the Golden Bear’s. His achievements so far at such a young age have already been remarkable; but quite simply, the odds don’t favor him catching Woods. So far, McIlroy has managed to win an Open Championship (at Hoylake on the Wirral Peninsula) in England this summer along with two PGAs (the second coming this year) and the US Open of 2011 – his inaugural Major when aged just 22.

So now – he would dearly love to add a Green Jacket from Augusta to his list of credits. And currently – the market expects him to do exactly that. At the time of writing, Rory McIlroy is a short-priced 9/2 favorite with the betting exchange Betfair to win the 2015 golf Masters tournament.

It’s not surprising that he’s favorite of course. Currently, McIlroy is rated the top golfer in the world by quite a distance. And it would be no huge surprise to see him win the one missing Major that many of us regard as the ultimate test in golf.

When you think about the Masters compared with the other three Majors – it’s an entirely different proposition. For a start, the event is played on the same course every year – obviously. Now this tends to help iron out the kinks in the game a little more and enables the cream to rise to the top. This is self –evident when you look at the all-time list of Masters winners – you’ll find the following names on top of that list: Jack Nicklaus clear of the pack with six wins (in 1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, and 1986), followed by the great Arnold Palmer with four wins to his credit (in 1958, 1960, 1962, and 1964) and Tiger Woods also on four wins so far (achieved in 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005).

What’s more, the conditions at Augusta each April tend, nine times out of ten, to be more or less perfect for target golf. Of course, the famous Bermuda Grass also helps – but these factors combine to make it a true test of target golf ability. And for some lovers of golf – notably in the US – this is the kind of golf we really want to see. And that, in turn, is because we want to see the best players winning the best tournaments.

At the other tournaments such as the British Open (and particularly when it’s held at links courses in Scotland, for example) the weather and wind can really get up. This kind of golf has its own unique charm, no doubt, but it brings a far greater element of good fortune into things. It also favors those golfers who are experienced in – or who simply like such conditions. But it isn’t for everyone.

So coming back to Rory McIlroy, maybe his game just doesn’t really suit Augusta? And harsh though this may sound – if you can’t win a career Grand Slam of golf, you probably don’t belong on the all-time list of greats. Rory McIlroy’s best showing at Augusta so far actually came in this year’s Masters when he tied for eighth place in an event won by Bubba Watson.

This was a hugely disappointing performance by the young man’s own exactingly high standards – but it’s still difficult to see him really coming in his own in Georgia in the spring given his experience there so far.

Let’s hope we’re completely wrong about this and let’s hope the young man truly lives up to his pre-tournament favoritism and fulfils his potential to join the all-time greats.

So who are the golfers, exactly, that have managed this career Grand Slam?

Well in addition to the afore-mentioned Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the other players on this exclusive list are Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, and Gary Player. So when you think about the great golfing names from the past who haven’t achieved this particular feat, it gives you some idea of just how difficult this is. For example, there is no place on this list for golfers such as Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Seve Ballesteros.

So what do you think – will Rory McIlroy become the latest member of this exclusive club any time soon?

Jordan J. Caron

Jordan J. Caron is a former Canadian PGA Class A member who still wants to help golfers shoot better scores. He is also the President of Meaningful Marketing. In his downtime he likes to read, play squash and drink wine.

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