In every generation of professional golf there, are two distinct types of players—those who are competing against their peers and those who are chasing down history.
When Jack Nicklaus showed up at a major championship, he was competing against more than just the likes of Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. He was pursuing major championship records that the likes of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen set.
Each and every time Tiger Woods stepped onto a golf course, he was competing against more than just Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh. He was chasing down all-time records that past greats such as Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead set.
With four major championship titles at the age of 26, Rory McIlroy would certainly fall into that category of players who are competing against history as much as they are competing against their present-day peers.
When McIlroy arrives at Augusta National this week, he will not only be looking to defeat the likes of Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott and Jason Day to capture his first Masters title, he will also be attempting to become just the sixth player in history to win the professional career grand slam.
But a Masters title would do more for McIlroy than just cement his place in the history books with regards to the career grand slam; it would go a long way toward determining his ultimate legacy in major championship competition.
Augusta National is perhaps the most iconic golf course on the face of the planet, and for many fans, the Masters represents the single biggest week of the golf season.
The course’s unparalleled natural beauty, the rich tradition and history of the Masters and the familiarity most have gained with the venue through countless hours of television coverage all combine to create what Jim Nantz has so eloquently labeled “a tradition unlike any other.”
But what occasional gets lost in all of the beauty and tradition surrounding the Masters is just how successful Augusta National has been at identifying the best players of every generation.
Of the 13 players who have won five or more major championships during the modern Masters era, only two—Lee Trevino and Peter Thomson—do not possess at least one green jacket. However, Trevino is the only real outlier, as Thomson spent most of his career playing overseas and attended only eight Masters.
There are, of course, four major championships played each and every year. So an equal distribution of major championship titles would be 25 percent per major.
But that is not at all the case for the vast majority of the all-time leaders in major championship wins.
These players, for the most part, have relied on the Masters for a disproportionate number of their major championship titles.
Of those who have won five or more majors, 35 percent of their combined major championship wins have come at the Masters.
Listed below are the percentages of major championship titles captured at Augusta National by some of the all-time leaders in major championship wins:
- Nicklaus: 33 percent
- Woods: 29 percent
- Gary Player: 33 percent
- Palmer: 57 percent
- Snead: 43 percent
- Nick Faldo: 50 percent
- Mickelson: 60 percent
- Byron Nelson: 40 percent
- Seve Ballesteros: 40 percent
This can be largely attributed to the fact that the Masters is held at the same venue each and every year.
While majors such as the U.S. Open, Open Championship and British Open may rotate between courses players are comfortable with and those they are not, players who have been lucky enough to conquer Augusta National can typically depend on this Alister MacKenzie/Bobby Jones gem to provide them with an excellent chance to contend for a major title each and every April.
In addition to Augusta National’s uncanny ability to separate out the top players of any given generation, it typically identifies these players at a young age.
Of those players in the top six in all-time major championship wins, their average age at the time of their first Masters victory was 27, with Ben Hogan being the only one of the top six to have won his first Masters after the age of 30.
In fact, of those 11 players who have won five or more professional majors including the Masters, only four won their first Masters after the age of 30.
At McIlroy’s current pace, he has an excellent chance to accumulate a large number of majors and perhaps even join Nicklaus, Woods and Walter Hagen as the only players to reach double digits in major championship titles.
But in order to do so, he will more than likely need to begin filling his closet with green jackets.
Back in 2011, McIlroy began the final round of the Masters with a four-stroke lead and was still leading by one after nine holes before carding a triple bogey at the par-four 10th and playing the back nine in seven over par en-route to a final-round score of 80. This epic meltdown placed a Masters monkey on McIlroy’s back that he has so-far been unable to shake.
Since McIlroy began attending the Masters back in 2010, he actually has only two top-10 finishes, although both have come in the last two years, so the good news is that he appears to be trending in the right direction.
It is, of course, possible for McIlroy to climb the list of all-time major championship victories without the Masters. Trevino got to six without ever winning the Masters, and only two of Hogan’s nine majors came at the Masters. But history has not been kind to those players who have been unable to conquer Augusta National.
At the age of 26, McIlroy still has room left on his Masters learning curve. But the urgency to win certainly increases with each trip to Augusta, Georgia, that does not result in a green jacket hanging in his home closet.
Perhaps that sense of urgency McIlroy is undoubtedly beginning to feel each time he drives down Magnolia Lane will result in 2016 being the year he removes that monkey from his back and replaces it with one of those green jackets.