If he isn’t the greatest golfer of all time, he has played the game at a higher level than it has ever been played.
Still, five years is five years, unless you want to get picky about it. Then it becomes five years and a month, three weeks and however many days.
Ted Williams doesn’t own the highest batting average in baseball history. He didn’t finish his career with the most home runs or win a single World Series, but a lot of people think he’s the greatest hitter who ever lived.
At what point are the numbers replaced by sheer perspective? Do you trust your eyeballs or the encyclopedia?
Is it possible to be the greatest ever, just not right now?
The 95th PGA Championship has become, in a sense, Tiger Woods’ 72-hole judgment day. If he never reaches the top of Mount Nicklaus, people will look back on a majorless 2013 and see the Year That Didn’t Add Up. All those PGA Tour victories and irrefutable signs of dominance, but no big trophies? Never has Tiger looked so superior in regular events – and so vulnerable on the climb to 19.
He used to make everything that mattered. Now, everything matters and nothing goes in. Is Woods too aggressive when he should be conservative? Too conservative when he should be aggressive? Theories are cheap, substance is shifty. The red shirt used to turn everyone else into pumpkin pie. Since Y.E. Yang, it has been more about the fashion and less about the statement.
Only once has Woods won five tournaments in a season without picking off a major title. It happened in 2003, the last time the PGA was held at Oak Hill, which means whatever you want it to mean. There are subjective measures, and there is fact. Excluding the Masters, which is played on the same course every year, this marks the 15th time Woods has revisited a site where he played a previous major.
Only one of those prior 14 produced a win – the 2007 PGA at Southern Hills. Tiger is the only sports franchise with four home arenas: Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill and Firestone. Removed from those hotspots, he can look a lot like a guy with a sore elbow.
Flashbacks come and go, which is what flashbacks do. The runaway triumph in Ohio last week marked the fourth time in 16 months that Woods has won the start before a major. You don’t win WGCs by seven shots by playing poorly, but again, history only magnifies the mystery. Tiger comes to the majors hot, then goes cold when he used to get hotter.
We search for reasons why. Not just the media, but the 12-handicap in your Saturday foursome or the guy who doesn’t let up at the neighborhood block party. In a world where your body of work has become far less important than what you’ve done lately, in a game where long-term performance should be more significant than the recent past, Tiger Woods has become an indecipherable curiosity chained to ridiculous standards.
And if he does win this week? Oh, goodness. Greatest ever. Drool rules. Mount Nicklaus gets a little lower. Six wins and a major? Awesome year. It will be like he never left us. At least until next April.