Bobby Jones was just 21 years old when he won his first major championship, the 1923 U.S. Open. Before he retired in 1930, at the age of 28, Jones would play in U.S. Opens or Open Championships 14 times, winning seven and finishing solo or joint second four times. Jones was similarly successful in the U.S. and British Amateurs, where he won six of 16 starts. Some dismiss the ceaseless laudatory rhetoric that has been written about Jones as hyperbole, but these numbers don't lie.
Nobody could have been that good, that young, but Jones was.
Jack Nicklaus won his first major championship, the 1962 U.S. Open, at age 22. Over the course of three decades, he redefined the potential longevity of a major champion. Jones won seven professional majors over seven years and then he retired. Ben Hogan won nine majors over seven years, then his nerves betrayed him. Arnold Palmer won seven majors over six years, then inexplicably never won another. The seemingly ageless Sam Snead managed to extend his major-winning years into double figures, with seven wins over 12 years. But Jack proved that the history of all is not the history of each. From 1962 on, he just kept on winning, with eight majors in the 1960s, seven in the '70s and, after turning 40, three more in the '80s.
Nobody could have been that good, for that long, but Nicklaus was.
Tiger Woods came along at a time when it was believed that advancements in equipment were diminishing the importance of talent. That was until Tiger won the 1997 Masters. Since that win, the game, at least at the professional level, would never be the same.
Nicklaus' biggest victory margin in the Masters was nine shots, in 1965. Thirty-two years later Woods won by 12. Nicklaus' biggest victory margin in the U.S. Open was four shots, in 1967. In 2000 Woods won by 15. Nicklaus' biggest victory margin in the Open Championship was two shots, in 1978 at St. Andrews. A little more than two decades later on the same course, Woods won by eight.
Jack had the better career, but Tiger, at his best, was the better player. Nobody could have been that much better than Nicklaus, but Woods was.
Which brings us to Jordan Spieth and what he accomplished this year.
The facts are impressive enough – he won the year's first two majors before he turned 22 – something that Jones, Nicklaus and Woods never did. Spieth's winning Masters score of 270 (18 under) tied the record set by Woods (on a course that was 510 yards shorter) in 1997. And Spieth became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Jones in 1923. Spieth also – with a white-hot media spotlight glaring on his quest for the first three legs of the modern Grand Slam – finished just one shot out of a playoff at St. Andrews, then capped his major season with a second-place finish at the PGA.
It is said to be dubious, even odious, to compare players of different eras. The objection, I suppose, is that it inevitably robs one generation of some of the joy of their fanaticism for an athlete if the comparison deems that athlete to be less of a genius. But genius transcends generations, and so there is much to be learned by juxtaposing and contrasting the best players of various eras.
Jones, Nicklaus and Woods share various aspects of their swings, a subject for which I have a sweet tooth and go into great detail about in my book, "The Anatomy Of Greatness," which will be published early this year. But what made them who they were was more about the mind than their muscle.
This is true of Spieth, as well. Like this trio of greats, he seems to have clarity of purpose that allows him to play without insecurities, but also to not make decisions on the golf course based upon ego. The battle between insecurity and ego impoverishes almost every player at some point. But the very best live between these two thieves and are never distracted by either. Free to rely on their athleticism, they have a clear mind for contemplation, to consider myriad factors such as wind, lie, firmness of green, adrenaline, even grain. And this is to say nothing of the supreme confidence that comes with that athleticism and contemplation.
These mental gifts, less obvious than the physical ones, perpetuate themselves. More than talent, they are why these four men won majors in their early 20s.
Nobody is supposed to be that good that young, but Spieth is.
It has been said that athletes are like blocks of ice and all of them are melting, which is a commentary on their physical skills and the race that an athlete faces against time. But when a golfer wins a major championship in his early 20s, he likely has something far less perishable than talent. That quality has served golf's early achievers well throughout their careers. In all likelihood, it will prove to do the same for Spieth.