Is Rory McIlroy the Greatest 23-Year-Old Golfer in History?

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Comparing Rory, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus Through Age 23

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After back-to-back wins at the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships, 23-year-old Rory McIlroy is closing in on a FedExCup title. The accompanying $10 million would buy world-class WAG Caroline Wozniacki a lot of bling, but I'm more concerned about Rory's place in history should he close the deal at the Tour Championship next week.

The question before us: Is McIlroy the greatest 23-year-old golfer in history? There are only three clear candidates — Rory, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus — so let's take them one by one and let their numbers speak for themselves.

 

The Case for Rory McIlroy
Majors Won: 2
Combined Margin: 16
Major Top 5s: 5
Major Top 10s: 6
PGA Tour Wins: 6
Worldwide Wins: 9

Notes
• He's the youngest PGA Champion (23 years, three months) since the tournament moved to stroke play in 1958, beating Jack Nicklaus' record.
• His 8-shot margin of victory at the PGA broke Nicklaus' record 7-shot margin at the 1980 PGA.
• McIlroy is the second-youngest player to win two majors. Nicklaus was one month younger when he won his second; Tiger was four months older.
• His 8-shot win at the PGA reprised his 8-shot demolition of the U.S. Open field in 2011. He's the first player to earn his first two major victories in such dominant fashion.
• He's halfway to a career Grand Slam, and had he avoided a Sunday back-nine meltdown at the 2011 Masters, we'd be talking about him in the reverent tones once reserved for Tiger at his apex.

 

The Case for Tiger Woods (through age 23 season)
Majors Won: 2
Combined Margin: 13
Major Top 5s: 4
Major Top 10s: 6
PGA Tour Wins: 15
Worldwide Wins: 17

Notes
• Tiger also won an unprecedented three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles (1994-96), which at one time were considered majors.
• Tiger was the 1996 NCAA champion while at Stanford.
• As low amateur at the 1996 British Open, he tied a record with an amateur aggregate score of 281.
• He was PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1997 and 1999.

 

The Case for Jack Nicklaus (through age 23 season)
Majors Won: 3
Margin: 3 (plus playoff)
Major Top 5s: 7
Major Top 10s: 8
PGA Tour Wins: 8
Worldwide Wins: 11

Notes
• Nicklaus was a two-time U.S. Amateur Champion (1959, 1961).
• He won the NCAA title at Ohio State in 1961.
• Nicklaus won 27 events in the Ohio area from ages 10-17, many against professionals.
• His first professional win came in the 1962 U.S. Open, where he beat Arnold Palmer on Palmer's home turf at Oakmont with a partisan crowd rooting against him. At 22, he was the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.

The Verdict
Nicklaus was the only three-time major winner at age 23, and he took down the great Arnold Palmer when the King was at his peak. McIlroy set new standards of dominance in winning his first two majors by a combined 16 strokes, and he's established himself as the clear No. 1 player in the world. Plus, he doesn't turn 24 until next May, giving him time to add to his ledger. But for dramatic success combined with sheer impact, Woods is the choice. His 12-stroke breakthrough win at the 1997 Masters remains one of golf's greatest achievements, and his 17 worldwide wins at such a tender age remain unmatched. And that's without mentioning the broader significance of his status as the first major champion of color, a development that tapped a new market for the game.

Others Worth Mentioning

• I can't leave Seve Ballesteros out of this discussion. By the time he turned 24, Seve had two majors under his belt — the 1979 British Open and 1980 Masters — as well as 12 other wins in Europe and the 1978 Greensboro title on the PGA Tour. I only omit him from inclusion with Rory, Tiger and Jack because of the level of competition on the European Tour at the time; it wasn't what it is today. Plus, he had only one top 10 in a major aside from his two wins, leaving him well behind the top three.

• At age 23, Bobby Jones had won a U.S. Open and two U.S. Amateurs, when they were true majors. His level of competition excludes him from consideration, though.

• By the time he turned 24, Phil Mickelson was a four-time winner on Tour, including a rare win as an amateur (Tucson, 1991). He remains the last amateur to win on the PGA Tour. He's probably the greatest NCAA golfer in history, winning three individual NCAA championships and earning All-America honors all four years at Arizona State. He also won the U.S. Amateur in 1990, joining Woods and Nicklaus in winning the NCAA-U.S. Amateur double in the same season. But his success in majors would come later.

• At age 21, Ben Crenshaw became the second player in Tour history to win the first event he entered. He was a three-time NCAA champion at Texas.
 

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