Column: A Mickelson Masters win still wouldn’t eclipse Nicklaus in ‘86

By Steve Hummer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

AUGUSTA, Ga. (McClatchy) — If Phil Mickelson at 47 wins the Masters this week and takes old to new places here, it certainly would be a story for the aged. It would greatly warm the partially clogged heart of every patron born before the world wide web.

But — and here’s a notable departure from how we used to regard men of a certain age and the game they play — it wouldn’t be the kind of event to shake the needles from pines.

“None of us would be surprised if Phil won,” ESPN analyst and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North said.

In 1986, of course, everyone was surprised when Jack Nicklaus won at 46, becoming the eldest Masters champion. That was, and still is, widely considered the greatest Masters of them all.

Back then, Nicklaus was viewed as a relic along the lines of a butter churn or a harpsichord. You expected him to wear his golf pants up to his sternum. Surely his golf shoes were open-toed.

The late AJC golf writer Tom McCollister famously wrote of the Olden Bear in advance of that tournament: “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46 and nobody that old wins the Masters.” They posted that one up on the fridge at the home Nicklaus rented that week, and the rest is history after his back-nine 30 on Sunday.

But, with Mickelson’s help, we are continuing to recalibrate what is too old. And for that, we thank him.

Mickelson winning this week would be special. But it wouldn’t be as stunning as that Sunday in ‘86. Times and perceptions have changed.

The comparative Tale of the Tape (they probably use lasers now, but we’re going Old School):

When Nicklaus won in ‘86, it had been six years since he last won a major. Hadn’t won on the PGA Tour in two years (the 1984 Memorial). It had been 11 years since he had last won the Masters — his fifth. And, in defense of McCollister, Nicklaus had looked done. His seven appearances leading into that Masters included three missed cuts, one withdrawal and finishes of 39th, 47th and 60th.

As Mickelson tees it up here this week, he is but a month removed from a PGA Tour victory in Mexico, granted his first since 2013. Eight years have passed since his third and most-recent Masters win. Three top-6 finishes preceded his Mexican breakthrough. He has overcome time, psoriatic arthritis and a gambling/insider trading scandal. The guy is resilient, you have to give him that.

So let’s assume for the moment Mickelson wins this thing again. To recap, it just wouldn’t seem as momentous as Nicklaus in ‘86. Some of that due, naturally, to the fact that one figure towers considerably above the other. And some due to the exploits of guys like Tom Brady and Mickelson, as they reshape what is possible for the 40-something athlete.

But I don’t think that will happen.

Mickelson’s 47 and nobody that old wins the Masters.

There, Phil, glad I could help.


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By Steve Hummer

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution