Player and Nicklaus are right: The Masters is the weakest Major

Gary Player, 2022 PNC Championship,Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Gary Player, 2022 PNC Championship,Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are taking a lot of social media heat this Masters eve for their apparent dissing of the event they helped make famous.

The problem with criticizing them as grumpy old men is that by many objective measures, they’re both spot on.

Gary Player ignited the controversy when he told the Daily Mail that the Masters was the least major of the four Majors. “I rate the Open at one, the U.S. Open at two, the PGA at three and the Masters at four,”  he said.

Gary Player based his ranking on tradition and age.

Started in 1934, the Masters is by 18 years the youngest of the four tournaments. Player’s ranking followed the exact order of the events’ creations.

When Player’s comments stirred heat, the Golf Channel noted that in a 2017 documentary, Nicklaus had said somewhat the same thing. “I have the U.S. Open as the No. 1 tournament,” Nicklaus said at the time, adding that “for the rest of the world the British Open is probably the No. 1 tournament.”

Nicklaus said he ranked the Masters fourth “because it’s not a championship,” as the two Opens and the PGA are. “You can’t rank a tournament ahead of a championship,” he said.

Their comments may have stirred sentimentalists who prize the Masters for its tradition, beauty, and charm. But the data says year after year it tends to produce the least remarkable results.

Since 2001, the average standard deviation from the field average of the Masters champion is -2.32. As PGA Tour events go, that’s lukewarm. As Majors go, it’s bottom of the barrel.

Comparatively, the average standard deviation of champions of the other three majors since 2001 is: British Open -2.63, PGA -2.53, U.S. Open -2.44.

Standard deviation is a good gauge for determining the relative exceptionality of the Majors because it measures the relative greatness of each champion’s showing. Week after week on Tour, the average standard deviation of the champion from the field average is about -2.50.

Since 2001, 11 Major champions did so with a score that measured more than three standard deviations ahead of their fields.

That is an exceptional level of dominance. Five of those 11 did so in the British Open, four in the PGA, and two in the U.S. Open.

Nobody has hit that level of exceptionality in the Masters since Tiger Woods got to 3.20 in his 1997 breakthrough victory.

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In fact, Woods was only the fourth to ever do so, joining Arnold Palmer in 1964, Nicklaus in 1965, and Ray Floyd in 1976. That’s the fewest truly dominant outcomes of any Major.

Since Palmer broke -3.00 standard deviations in the Masters in 1964, six players have done so in the U.S. Open, seven in the PGA, and 11 in the British Open.

Woods holds the record for the most exceptional Major showing, separating himself from the pack by -4.34 standard deviations at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open.