Earlier today golf legend and Ohio native Jack Nicklaus introduced Mitt Romney at a campaign stop in Westerville. Romney returned the favor by calling Nicklaus "the greatest athlete of the twentieth century," a claim that caused a few sports fans to clutch themselves in astonishment. Could this be his worst gaffe yet?
Let's start by not getting into a debate about whether golfers are real athletes who compare to the likes of football and basketball players, even though some would dispute that notion right away. Instead let's see what the experts think. ESPN's SportsCentury list, compiled at the turn of the last century, placed Nicklaus ninth among the greatest athletes of the era, behind some of the more obvious choices like Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Jesse Owens. A similar list by the Associated Press placed him twelfth. A Google search for "greatest athlete of the twentieth century" pretty much only brings up pages about Jim Thorpe.
Perhaps Romney was thinking of Sports Illustrated's "20th Century Awards" which they handed out in the fall of 1999. After dividing up athletes by their respective sports, the magazine named Nicklaus "the best individual male athlete of the 20th Century" ... but he wasn't competing against Jordan or Ruth or Wayne Gretzky. However, one of the other athletes in the "individual" sport category, Muhammad Ali, was the one who received the ultimate honor of SI's "Sportsman of the 20th Century," so obviously the confusion goes both ways. Plus, Ali is universally know as "The Greatest of All Time" and who's going to argue with that?
Speaking of arguments, there's actually one to be made that The Golden Bear is not even the greatest golfer of the twentieth century. Yes, Golf Digest gave him that distinction and his 18 major championships remain an unassailed record, but there are other duffers out there with impressive résumés of their own. Sam Snead still holds the record for most PGA Tour wins at 82. Byron Nelson won 11 straight tournaments in one year (also a record), and Ben Hogan and Walter Hagen also rate high on old school golfers' lists. You still can't convince most of "Arnie's Army" that Arnold Palmer didn't outclass his rival on links.
But our vote goes to Bobby Jones, a lawyer by trade who won 13 majors in seven years, despite never even turning pro. He also retired at 28, having accomplished the singular achievement of winning four majors (as they were considered at the time) in a calendar year. He never won The Masters either, but that's only because he was the one who invented it.