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Top three take center stage at Memorial Tournament

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The question wasn't even finished when Jack Nicklaus politely interrupted.

This was Tuesday afternoon in the Muirfield Village interview room, as the Memorial Tournament host was holding court at his annual pretournament press conference.

Nicklaus was being asked how golf's new "Big Three" of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy compare to golf's original Big Three of himself, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, but he cut off the question before it was done.

This was Nicklaus' best opportunity to create some sort of "Crocodile" Dundee knife comparison: That's not a Big Three ... this was a Big Three!" Instead, he used it as a chance to recall that he wasn't even necessarily part of the original version.

"[Sam] Snead, [Ben] Hogan and [Byron] Nelson wasn't too bad," said Nicklaus, deflecting the attention from his own triumvirate even after all these years.

Any pining for the old days, though, stopped here.

It's become trendy for old-timers in other sports to defend their generations by criticizing the current one. Nicklaus has always been more of a trendsetter than a trend follower. And so rather than discounting the Day-Spieth-McIlroy trio for not having the longevity or success of their predecessors yet, he insisted that if they're not a legitimate Big Three, that's only because there are only so many other potential candidates.

"Don't be too surprised if somebody else doesn't jump into there too," he said. "That's my point. I think we have more good players today than we've ever had in the game of golf. And I think that's saying a lot, because we had a lot of good players when I played."

Nicklaus instantly mentioned Rickie Fowler as a player who could join that group. Then Bubba Watson. Hideki Matsuyama. Phil Mickelson. Even Tiger Woods. ("I think Tiger will be back," he said for the umpteenth time.)

In case you've slept through the ever-evolving narrative surrounding the world's top three players this year, it started with premature discussions about them being the new Big Three, quickly progressed to a conversation that included many others and has recently come full circle, with Day, Spieth and McIlroy each winning his last tournament start before all coming here for this week's event.

The latest incarnation of this nickname could be an impulsive decree by the press and public to wrap the state of the game's current highest level into a neat bow that fits perfectly into headlines and casual conversation alike.

There's a sense that these players should have to pay their dues and prove that aforementioned longevity before offered the same moniker as those of previous generations, but that's not exactly true, either.

It was a few years ago when Nicklaus guessed that the Big Three nickname was hatched in late 1962 by Mark McCormack of IMG, who represented all three of those players. They had combined to win all four major championships that year -- Palmer won the Masters and Open Championship; Nicklaus won the U.S. Open; Player won the PGA Championship -- and were being marketed together for exhibition tournaments and even a television show called "Big Three Golf."

"We were probably the three better players," Nicklaus recalled, "but right behind us, there was [Billy] Casper, and there was [Lee] Trevino, and [Tom] Watson came along. So it was maybe in some ways a little unfair to the others, because we got more publicity than they did."

History might be repeating itself right now. Is it unfair to the likes of Fowler and Watson and Matsuyama that their three peers are drawing a majority of the worldwide attention? Maybe. Then again, winning breeds attraction.

Since the beginning of last year, Day, Spieth and McIlroy have combined for 20 global titles. Until others start winning at a similar clip, they're apparently left out of the equation.

"I think that could change overnight," Nicklaus said. "I think they're a little premature on it, but do I think these guys are probably the three best players right now? Probably so."

Day, the current world No. 1 who already has three wins this year and is fresh off a Players Championship victory in his most recent start, understands the benefit to having fellow players push him to be considered the best.

"I heard a couple of weeks ago that it bothered Jordan that I was winning tournaments and have the No. 1 spot in the world -- and it should," Day said Tuesday. "It should bother guys who are competitive and want to stay on top, as well. There's nothing wrong with being bothered by that.

"I hope it motivates them just as much as it motivates me to see other guys on top of the world and winning tournaments. That's just how some guys are pushed. I know I'm pushed that way, as well, when I see Rory or Jordan on top of the world. I want to do that."

Whether they're just the latest threesome to be staked to a nickname or they truly are the new Big Three, these players will have the spotlight affixed to them throughout this week after those recent wins.

As if that isn't enough, at least one member of the previous Big Three sees something of himself in the current version.

"There were weeks that I had a good short game and I won with my short game; there were weeks when I won with my long game," Nicklaus said. "Do I see some of myself in these guys? Yeah. But I do see them having to do what I did too: play different ways to win. You don't always win the same way."