Tiger can catch the Golden Bear
GOLDEN BEAR Jack Nicklaus this week celebrates a golden jubilee ... it's 50 years since, at age 23, he won the first of six Masters titles, which firmly establish him as the greatest player of all time at Augusta National.
Shortly after dawn on Thursday morning, Nicklaus will return to the first tee at Augusta with Arnold Palmer (below) and Gary Player to hit the ceremonial opening shots of the 2013 Masters.
These three living legends represent a golden age in golf – as did Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead before them – and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are doing right now.
Sport tends to look back wistfully and wonder where all the great players of yore have gone. Sometimes we forget that history is being written and legends forged in our time.
Make no mistake, we are living in a golden era for golf.
Woods and Mickelson, in particular, have established themselves as two of the most formidable players ever, especially with their remarkable and still unfolding record at Augusta National, a course conceived by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie to define true greatness.
Augusta retains much of its old-world charm and, if Jones rolled up Magnolia Lane this week, he'd feel perfectly at home, even if the golfers play a game with which he'd not be familiar.
Yet the course has developed through the years, keeping pace with the march of technology and advances in player fitness, to maintain its reputation as the ultimate challenge in golf.
"Change at Augusta National takes the shape of a steady and quiet evolution," Palmer explained. "But the overall effect is one of a gracious permanence that always makes coming here feel a little like coming home."
Arguably the most significant change at Augusta came in 1980, when bentgrass replaced Bermuda on the greens and the legend of lightning-quick, deadly slick putting surfaces at the Masters was born.
When Seve Ballesteros returned to defend his title in 1981, he found the greens utterly different from those on which he had won the Green Jacket the previous year.
Yet it's a measure of Seve's class that he prevailed once again at Augusta in 1983.
The extravagantly talented Spaniard is one of just three to win on both sides of this watershed. The others were Tom Watson (Masters champion in '77 and '81) and, of course, Nicklaus, who donned the Green Jacket for the sixth and most sensational time at the age of 46 in 1986.
Another hugely significant change occurred in 2006 when, in concert with an extension of the course, rough was introduced for the first time, with trees also placed strategically at certain holes to narrow the fairways even further.
Suddenly, a premium was placed on accuracy off the tee, leading some to read great significance into the fact that Woods has not won in the seven Masters tournaments since.
No doubt, serious injury and cataclysmic events in his private life have affected Tiger's performance at Augusta and elsewhere since his last Major championship victory at the US Open in Torrey Pines in 2008.
Following his three wins on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill and the restoration of his invincible aura on the putting green, Woods is widely fancied to win the Masters for a fifth time on Sunday and resume his career-long pursuit of that record 18 Majors won by Nicklaus.
Tiger broke the mould at Augusta and heralded the dawn of a new era in golf in 1997 when, at 21, he blitzed all-comers at the Masters. He became the only player in history to hold all four Grand Slam trophies at the same time here in 2001; he joined Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as one of only three players to retain the Green Jacket in 2002 and won again at Augusta in 2005.
So dominant was Woods at Augusta, Butch Harmon, his former coach, suggested last week: "If anyone had suggested in 2005 that Tiger wouldn't win at the Masters for eight years, he'd have been taken away by the men in white coats."
Mickelson does not possess Tiger's outrageous intensity but the left-hander is blessed with Palmer's swashbuckling nature, plus a vivid imagination and the touch of an artist around the green, all of which make him a perfect fit for Augusta.
Despite a meteoric victory at February's Phoenix Open, Mickelson has shown signs recently of battle fatigue, which may have as much to do with chronic psoriatic arthritis as his 42 years. Yet Augusta is Tir na nOg for Lefty.
Given the consistency of the challenge presented by Augusta down the decades, it's possible to measure the all-time legends against each other on the basis of their performance here.
Inevitably, Nicklaus, with a record six wins among 25 top-10 finishes from 45 visits to the Masters, leads the points table by a country mile.
Yet Tiger fills second place after just 18 appearances at Augusta, less than half as many as the Golden Bear or the men just behind him in the pecking order, Palmer, Snead and Player.
Notably, Nicklaus won four Majors and Ben Hogan six after turning 37, Tiger's age this year.
Mickelson, meanwhile, ranks sixth in our points table after just 20 tournaments.
Though our table is unapologetically biased towards winners, three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo still finishes well down the order after just five other top-20 finishes.
Incidentally, Greg Norman, who has had no triumphs and more than his fair share of tragedy during his four second-place finishes here, earned just 107 points.
The Great White Shark didn't fulfill his potential at Augusta but if Tiger wins on Sunday, he'll probably go on to become the all-time Master of Augusta.