As the 2012 golf year has now concluded – or at least as it pertains to the casual fan who only follows the four majors – it’s again the occasion, for the umpteenth time, to reassess Tiger Woods’s chances of overtaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles. Increasingly it appears that a record that once seemed destined to be eclipsed is now likely less than a 50/50 proposition. Much less.
Nicklaus’s accomplishment of 18 majors stands as one of the great records in sports, an almost Ruthian feat; consider that when Nicklaus won his last major at the 1986 Masters, he had double the total of the next closest golfers from the modern era - Gary Player and Ben Hogan each notched nine majors. Walter Hagen won 11 major titles but that was during the 1910s and 1920s, a decidedly different and, many would argue, less competitive era.
So, already, Woods’s 14 majors is historic and, at worst, he’ll go down as the second greatest golfer of all time – by a wide margin – if he were to never claim another major championship.
But that distinction was never the goal for the legacy-obsessed Woods. The only number that has famously mattered to him since he was a small boy is 18 – and then 19.
So 2012 marked the fourth consecutive year that Woods didn’t win a major title. His level of play undoubtedly improved, though, as his three victories on tour this year attest. But he’d trade them all in a second for one major. And while Woods was competitive during the first two rounds in the big four titles this year, especially at the British Open and the recent PGA Championship, he floundered on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday used to belong to Woods; now he’s watching others raise their game at the important moments and run away from him, making Woods appear pedestrian and just another middle-of-the-pack golfer. It’s a cruel reversal of precedent for Woods.
Having said all this, the eerie parallels that exist between Woods and Nicklaus are still in play and, on the face of it, should offer hope for Woods that his dream of 19 is still within reach. By the time Nicklaus turned 37 in January 1977, the Golden Bear had accumulated 14 major trophies. Woods will be 37 in December and he also is holding at 14.
After turning 37 Nicklaus claimed four majors; the British Open in 1978, the U.S. Open and PGA in 1980 and, of course, the 1986 Masters where Nicklaus put on a stirring display over the back nine.
Even being blessed with superhuman talent, like Woods is, it’s very difficult to win multiple championships as 40 encroaches. It’s not totally uncommon, just look at Vijay Singh, but it will take an extraordinary effort by Woods to defy age.
And there’s also the matter of the knees. Nicklaus was lucky as he never had severe injuries. An aching back would bother him on occasion but Nicklaus didn’t have the surgeries that Woods has endured. How much longer can Woods’ knees hold up and allow him the incredible torque that he generates?
Additionally, Nicklaus never had a stretch of more than two years in which he didn’t win a major, while Woods’s major-less drought is entering its fifth year. Until after 1980, when he turned 40, Nicklaus’s only stretch of futility at the majors occurred in 1968-1969 and 1976-1977. Woods went winless at the big four in 2003-2004 in addition to the stretch starting in 2009 through today.
“Jack’s Back” was the headline of the June 23, 1980, cover of Sports Illustrated, after Nicklaus had won his fourth U.S. Open. But where had he gone? It had only been two years since his last major. This just shows the level of pressure that was on Nicklaus at the time – even at 40 he was still expected to win.
Further, Nicklaus never fully vanished from the majors. In what may be the most telling statistic for those who state that Nicklaus will always be the most dominant golfer of all time: his 19 second-place finishes at the majors. Currently, Woods has finished second six times – at the same age, 37, Nicklaus had been the runner-up on 13 occasions at the majors.
(To me, this is similar to Nolan Ryan’s specific dominance in pitching - though I’d never put Ryan in the top five pitchers of all time, when he was “on” there was no one like him. Ryan not only set the standard with seven no-hitters, a ridiculous number in itself, he also threw 12 one-hitters and 18 two-hitters).
Woods has had three prolonged significant periods where he didn’t pull down a major trophy or finish second – stretches of 10, eight and the current run of 10 majors played in without a top-two finish. Nicklaus had only one such lengthy period of seven majors played in, from late 1968 through early 1971, when he didn’t finish first or second.
Most of all, Woods’ pursuit of 18 will depend on his competition. Many think it is Rory McIlroy who will assume the mantle of “world’s best golfer” and be the chief obstacle to Woods' reaching his goal.
This much is true – it won’t be easy. And all the overhyped predictions of more than 20 majors that the media threw at Woods way back 15 years ago now seems like from a faraway time.