AUGUSTA, Ga.—Given the rightful fanfare attached to Rory McIlroy’s attempt to win his first Masters this week and with it becoming only the sixth member to join the exclusive Grand Slam winners club, it’s important to point out another milestone set by another 25-year-old player—50 years ago.
Heading into the 1965 Masters, the buzz centered around an Ohio-born talent: Jack Nicklaus—already a Masters champion at the then record-young age of 23 in 1963. Even after claiming the U.S. Open in 1962 as his first professional win—doing so at age 22—and then claiming two additional majors in 1963 (his first green jacket and later that same year with his first win in the PGA Championship), the issue was whether his prodigious talent had the staying power to achieve even greater results.
In 1964, Nicklaus barely edged Arnold Palmer for the PGA Tour money title and won four titles—none were majors—although Jack finished second in three of them.
The 1965 Masters provided ideal opening-round scoring conditions and a range of talented players. Gary Player, the 1961 Masters champion, got things going quickly with a stellar 65—the best first-round shot by the talented South African at Augusta. In fact, 33 players shot below par for the opening round, and many wondered whether the four-round record of 274 set by Ben Hogan in 1953 was in serious jeopardy of being eclipsed.
Player weighed in on the subject: “But if anyone is going to break Hogan’s record I would have to say it will be Nicklaus. There is no such thing as a par-5 hole on this golf course for Nicklaus because he is strong and he hits the ball so far. Not only that, he has a tremendous touch. I predict that if the weather is good Jack will break the tournament record.”
Scoring leveled off on Friday’s second round—courtesy of tougher pin placements and a vexing wind that ebbed and flowed through corners of the course. At the end of the day, the big three (Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus) stood atop the 36-hole leaderboard.
Given the all-star trio at the top of the leaderboard, it looked likely that a good ole shootout would occur on “moving day”—the term used to highlight players able to gain position leading into Sunday’s final round.
Nicklaus made par at the 1st hole, and after blocking his tee shot at the 2nd, it appeared for a fraction of time that Jack would have trouble in negotiating the remaining part of the hole.
Far from it.
Nicklaus birdied the 2nd and the floodgates soon thereafter opened as he finished the front nine in 31—five birdies against no blemishes on the outward half. On the back nine Jack kept the pedal down to full speed ahead, picking up three birdies with the rest all pars. Nicklaus picked up five strokes on Player and no less than eight on Palmer in firing a then course-tying-record of 64—matched only once by Lloyd Mangrum in the first round in the 1940 Masters.
Sunday’s final round never was in doubt. Nicklaus finished with a three-under-par 69 and posted a 271 total—breaking the former 274 total set by Hogan—and winning by a then record nine shots and validating what Player had said earlier after the first round.
Bobby Jones, not one to toss empty superlatives, said it succinctly when asked about the prowess of Nicklaus. “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” The simplicity of the statement coming from a golf champion second to none who won 13 major events was utterly pinpoint in its brevity and frankness.
Nicklaus had not won a major event in 1964 but the win at Augusta 50 years ago provided a clear and convincing statement that the 25-year-old was going to be a force for years to come. In the 1966 Masters, Nicklaus would do what no other player had done previously—defend his title. Later that same year, Jack would win his first Open Championship at Muirfield—becoming the youngest player ever to have won all four professional majors in a career.
Rory McIlroy has demonstrated considerable evidence of his golf skills. He has won four majors, set a new four-round total at the U.S. Open in 2011, and won the final two majors for 2014. Adding his first green jacket would complete a career grand slam and mark his third consecutive major triumph, while positioning himself to win four straight majors with a win at the U.S. Open this June. Such a feat would match what Tiger Woods did during the 2000–01 seasons.
When McIlroy is on form, his play is clearly a notch beyond those of his contemporaries. Nicklaus faced a similar situation 50 years ago and showed clearly he would be the dominant player of his generation—if not for all-time. The words of Jones echo to this day but they could have only applied to what Nicklaus achieved and what Woods has since done.
Greatness for eternity is a tall wall to climb such heights. McIlroy’s journey to join such rarified air begins Thursday.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.