Welcome to Teeing Off, where Devil Ball editor Jay Busbee and head writer Shane Bacon take a day's topic and smack it all over the course. Suggest a future topic by writing firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit us on Twitter at @jaybusbee and @shanebacon. Today we toss around the two greatest finishes in Masters history; Jack Nicklaus coming out of nowhere in 1986 and Phil Mickelson's maiden major in '04. Which one was better?
Bacon: Debating which back nine of golf was better between Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and Phil Mickelson in 2004 is like trying to figure out which painting in the Met is more tasteful, but it is totally worth discussing. In' 86, Nicklaus posted a 30 over his final nine holes to win his final major championship and cement himself as the best to ever play Augusta National. It was a beautiful compilation of golf, and the way he closed out his career there will never be forgotten. But Phil's 31 in '04 is wonderful for a different reason. Mickelson had never won one of the big four, and was walking from major to major with a huge monkey on his back. Every time a major would come about, his inability to close out that tournament was the story, so for him to go out on Sunday like he did was fantastic. For me, Nicklaus' back nine was better, but Phil's was more impressive. What are your thoughts?
Busbee: My initial thought was that you were insane coming up with this idea, because there's no way anything could top Nicklaus' 1986 performance, right? But take a closer look. Mickelson was leading going into that Sunday, and then Ernie Els obliterated that lead with a 67 that included two eagles. Mickelson was down as much as three strokes to Els, then stormed birdie-birdie-birdie through Amen Corner. Finally, he sunk that 18-foot birdie on 18 and leaped 18 millimeters into the air. An astonishing win, all the way around. So it thus becomes this: Which is the better story, the long-suffering star finally breaking through, or the legend leaving one last performance of genius?
Bacon: It really is the toughest of choices. What if Phil falls short in 2004? Could he have ever recovered and actually won a major championship? What if Nicklaus hadn't sunk that eagle putt on 15, and then hit some mediocre shots into 16 and 17, finished two shots back of Norman and his legacy at Augusta National was changed forever? I have to say I lean towards Nicklaus in all these instances because I just find what he did to be so spectacular (well past his prime compared to in the middle of his prime with Phil), but Mickelson did exactly what he needed to do, and something he had never been able to do, against the stiffest of opponents. Maybe we can agree on this? Those two Masters were as good as they get.
Busbee: I think Nicklaus' legacy was already sealed before 1986, but that vaulted him out of golf and into the conversation of greatest sportsmen of all time. Had Mickelson fallen short in 2004, could he have come back to win a major after that? He survived the Winged Foot debacle, but that was with the majors monkey long gone. But, yes, let us agree: These two Masters runs were the absolute pinnacle of the sport. We're veering deep into piano-music, slow-pan-across-Augusta territory here, but this is why we watch golf: to see a microcosm of the challenges of life played out on a few holes. And it all gets going again Thursday.
Now your thoughts ... which final round, and win in general, was a bigger deal?
- Jack Nicklaus