AUGUSTA, Ga. – Arnold Palmer never had an easy time winning majors until the last one.
This is the 50th anniversary of Palmer going wire to wire in the 1964 Masters to win by six shots, giving him a record four green jackets. It was his seventh major, significant because it tied him with some of the greats in the game: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Two more and he could have tied Ben Hogan. Four more majors would have put him alongside Walter Hagen.
Palmer was only 34. He was the King. He was on a roll, winning roughly one of every three majors.
He never won another one.
''Well, of course you never think you're going to be at your last stop,'' Palmer said last week. ''But it was great. I suppose that psychologically I had accomplished maybe more than I even realized by winning the Masters and walking up the 18th hole comfortably. That was something that was truly great for me.''
Tiger Woods was 32 when he won his last major.
Through all these years, Woods has only been linked with Jack Nicklaus when the conversation turns to the majors. They are the only players to win the career Grand Slam three times over. The endless chatter is whether Woods will break the Nicklaus benchmark of 18 majors.
Is it even remotely possible that Woods, much like Palmer, already has won his last major?
Palmer went on to win 19 more times on the PGA Tour. He should have won at least one major and could have won more. Palmer famously lost a seven-shot lead on the back nine of Olympic Club in the 1966 U.S. Open, and then was beaten by Billy Casper in a playoff. He had close calls in 1964 and 1968 at the PGA Championship, the one major that kept him from a career Grand Slam.
Unlike Woods, he wasn't the best in the world when he stopped winning majors.
Woods captured his 14th major in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. That was six years ago, and so much has happened since, on and off the golf course. The knee surgery. The collapse of his marriage and change in his appeal. Another swing change under a third coach. More injuries.
And he no longer seems to make clutch putts, which might be worse than an injury.
Woods has won 14 times, two Jack Nicklaus awards as PGA Tour player of the year and one FedEx Cup title since his last major. He is still No. 1, not only in the world ranking but in the eyes of his peers.
Speculation about his future in the majors is fueled by this being the golden anniversary of Palmer's last major at Augusta National, and the fact Woods isn't here. He had surgery last week on his back to relieve a pinched nerve that has been bothering him for longer than he cares to reveal.
Woods won't return until this summer. No telling how many more majors he will miss before he is healthy enough to compete at a high level. His age suggests he is in his prime, but add five surgeries to those 38 years and he seems older.
It's foolish to suggest Woods won't win another major. If nothing else he can win one just as easily as Justin Rose did at the U.S. Open or Jason Dufner did at the PGA Championship – not because of who they are or what they were ranked, but simply because they are very good players and it happened to be their week.
But there was a time when ''probably'' wasn't part of the equation.
''I probably would have put every last dollar I had on the gamble that he would break Jack's record pre-2009,'' Graeme McDowell said. ''Now, slightly longer odds. I'm not quite sure I'd put every dollar I had on it now.''
McDowell has seen enough of Woods and the shots he could hit to never rule him out. But he has a good eye for the landscape. McDowell believes 30 percent of the challenge for Woods will be physical and the other 70 percent will be the field. The competition has never been this deep.
What made it tougher on Palmer, more than anything, was the arrival of Nicklaus.
There is no one like Nicklaus – other than Woods, of course – in today's game. Rory McIlroy is the best player in golf when he puts his game all the way back together. But that would be comparing a 24-year-old McIlroy with a 38-year-old Woods who will be coming off the disabled list this summer for the second time in three years.
Callaway, which sponsors Palmer, had made up special golf bags for its players this week with a crown on the side as a tribute to the King and the 50th anniversary of his last Masters. Is it possible that Nike will be doing the same for Woods at the 2058 U.S. Open?