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Popping the question: Will Tiger pass Jack?

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“Will Tiger pass Jack?”

Before we begin to explore golf’s version of the Quest for the Holy Grail, let’s play a little trivia. Which of the following is the source of the above question?

A) An intrepid reporter, asking every golfer who has ever teed it up in a PGA Tour event, as if owning picture-perfect swings makes them experts in predicting the future.

B) A television studio host, asking a roundtable of pundits who then bat the topic around like kittens playing with a ball of yarn.

C) A golf fan, asking another golf fan in the local 19th hole, launching a lengthy discussion that necessitates three cold beverages before finally reaching a definitive stalemate.

Trick question. The correct answer is: D) All of the above.

But therein lies some irony, because the question in question is a trick question.

Those four words - “Will Tiger pass Jack?” - for years have fanned the flames of the game’s most hotly debated topic. They’ve been asked and analyzed, debated and debunked.

This isn’t an exploration of whether Tiger Woods will claim five more major championship titles and pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Unless history presses the fast-forward button, we won’t know for certain anytime soon.

Instead, this piece will investigate our collective fascination with the end result – and why we can’t stop searching for opinions.

The question is uncomplicated; it requires a simple yes or no answer.

Yet there is little uncomplicated or simple about it. Asking whether Woods – whose major championship odometer has been stuck on 14 for more than a half-decade – will pass the mark of Nicklaus – who famously won his 18th as a 46-year-old at the 1986 Masters – transcends the numbers. It becomes a referendum on the generational gap, on heroism, on physical and technical and mental acumen, on favoritism, on luck and even on karma.

An answer of “yes” implies that you’re overly optimistic, your rose-colored glasses obstructing the fact that Woods hasn’t won any of the last 22 majors, dating back to the 2008 U.S. Open. It serves as a personal judgment on how fitness can facilitate longevity or how you believe Woods hits the ball better than Nicklaus did or makes more clutch putts or is just tougher to beat.

Or maybe you’re just rooting for him, your sensibility overcome by fanaticism.

An answer of “no” suggests you’re drinking a tall glass of Haterade, that you’re an enmity-spewing killjoy who believes everything and everyone was better in the good ol’ days. This stance comes armed with an insistence that Woods has never been the same since his last knee surgery or his personal scandal – or both – and that his best days are clearly behind him.

Or maybe you’re just rooting against him, your sensibility overcome by bias.

There are few gray areas. Our predictions are clouded by opinions, our inferences framed in the past. Even so, the most astute analyst might be proven wrong, while the most foolhardy casual observer might guess right. All of which is exactly what makes this question so uniquely compelling. There is no right or wrong answer – yet.

As the two main characters in this long-running drama concede, Woods probably has another 10 years of high-level golf. At least. So essentially we’re arguing something that might still be 5 million minutes from reaching a conclusion. We might as well be debating the 2024 presidential election.


“Will Tiger pass Jack?”

The question reflects our fascination with major championships and our fixation on how they represent golf’s ultimate in accomplishment.

Don’t believe it? Check the archives.

Arnold Palmer sits down for a one-on-one with a major website, and he’s asked the question. (“Can he? Yes. But will he? That is … very questionable,” Palmer told Yahoo! Sports in July.) Adam Scott joins a national morning television program after winning the Masters, and he’s asked the question, too. (“I absolutely believe he will. … I never doubt what he’s capable of on a golf course,” he explained on “CBS This Morning.”) 

The rise in importance of majors is the game’s answer to Apple stock. Bobby Jones won all four in 1930 when two were for amateurs only. As pointed out in an Associated Press article earlier this year, George Trevor of the New York Sun referred to this feat as the “impregnable quadrilateral”; O.B. Keeler of the Atlanta Journal later termed it the “Grand Slam.”

Thirty years after Jones’ accomplishment, Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Drum lamented to Arnold Palmer the demise of this foursome because of the ascension of professional golf. In turn, Palmer suggested a reformation of the majors to include the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship.

He went to Britain in 1960 to play in the somewhat forgotten British Open - after first winning the Masters and our Open - claiming he’d win all four of the golf world’s big championships,” explains golf historian Martin Davis. “He’d win in Scotland and then come back for the PGA. It didn’t happen, but Arnold popularized the concept of the modern Grand Slam. And the term ‘major’ came into the golf lexicon.”

Not that there was an instantaneous conversion. Far from it. To this day, Nicklaus considers his two U.S. Amateur victories as major titles, which would widen the gap between him and Woods if the latter didn’t have three such wins of his own. At some point between his first and his 18th, though, Nicklaus found those had been expunged from his major record – against his wishes.

"I was probably at 17 or 18 majors, including the Amateurs, and all of a sudden I had 15 or 16," he recalled in April. “What happened here? All of a sudden it became professional majors."

Not quite as suddenly, the majors superseded all other tournaments. There’s a reason why conversations about Sam Snead’s three-win lead over Woods on the PGA Tour all-time victory list pale in comparison with the volume of discussions about Nicklaus’ four-win lead on the majors list. Majors are cooler. They’re sexier. They’re easier to keep score.

The message is clear: Majors are where the best of the best battle for a place in history.

“Think about Sam Snead for a moment,” Davis says. “His career is somewhat tarnished as he never could win the U.S. Open. It bugged Sam to no end. If you could ask him today, would he give up the record for total wins for just one U.S. Open, I’m sure he’d snap at the opportunity.”

Here’s a little experiment. Ask your favorite golf fans who won the OHL Classic at Mayakoba – played just a few weeks back – and who won the Masters a decade ago. Without a doubt, the majority will come up with Mike Weir a lot quicker than Harris English.

Or, ask your favorite PGA Tour pros whether they’d rather have the career of Angel Cabrera – whose two PGA Tour wins are a Masters and U.S. Open - or a guy who’s won several times without a major.

“I’d rather have the majors, because having majors puts you in the record books for life,” says PGA Tour veteran and sometime Golf Channel analyst Steve Flesch, who owns four career Tour victories. “You can win 20 times, but if you’ve never won a major, I don’t know if you can consider yourself an all-time great. In 100 years, will people be talking about how many times Steve Stricker has won? I don’t think so. But we’ll always talk about who won those majors.”

A few years ago, Flesch finished a pro-am round, then picked up his then-13-year-old son Griffin and friend Carter Toms, son of 2001 PGA Championship winner David Toms. Knowing his own son was reluctant to receive advice about his game, the elder Flesch asked the younger Toms if he listens to what his father tries to teach him. Carter responded that he hung on every word.

“See that?” Flesch said to his son. “He listens when his dad gives him advice.”

“Yeah,” Griffin shot back, “but his dad won a major.”

The game’s four biggest tournaments are, to employ the commonest of clichés, what dreams are made of.

“When kids grow up playing the game, they think about having a 10-foot putt to win the Masters,” Flesch continues. “They don’t say, ‘This is to win the Heritage Classic’ or whatever.”

“Would I trade all four of my wins for one? Absolutely.”

Careful what you wish for. Shaun Micheel’s lone PGA Tour win was a major, his 7-iron to tap-in range on the final hole of the 2003 PGA Championship securing a place in history. In the time since, though, he’s struggled to live up to loftier expectations.

“I hate having the tagline of the one-hit wonder,” he says. “There have been times when I’ve sat back and thought maybe it would have been better if I’d won something else. … I’m not a recluse, but I don’t go out as much as I used to. It’s affected some of my friendships; it’s affected my love of golf. I’m proud of what I did, but it’s difficult because I have to answer to my children. They keep asking when I’m going to win another trophy."

Micheel failed to advance through the second stage of Q-School last month. As he walked off the final green, his playing partner – who had beaten him by a stroke – asked for his autograph.


Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron

“Will Tiger pass Jack?”

Golf's most prevalent question just might be the most prevalent question in all of sports. 

If it reeks of familiarity to sports fans of a previous generation, there’s good reason. It echoes a chase in the early 1970s.

“Will Hank pass the Babe?”

Four decades ago, the nation’s eyes were fixed on Hank Aaron and his race to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714. When Aaron finally tied Ruth on April 4, 1973, and passed him four days later, it was considered one of the greatest athletic achievements of the 20th century.

There are parallels between that chase and Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus. Each featured a determined man of color trying to supplant not only a white man, but a white man whose very name had earned legendary status. While Aaron was besieged with death threats from those opposed to him passing Ruth, Woods either lives in a considerably more tolerant era or simply isn’t as publicly vocal about such intimidation tactics from outsiders.

The biggest record in American sports isn’t so big anymore, though. Barry Bonds passed Aaron for the all-time home run mark in 2007, but amidst allegations of performance enhancing drugs many consider his name to have an asterisk affixed to it in the game’s record books.

And so without that number standing as a touchstone, we’ve looked to other all-time records as holding the most honor. The search hasn’t been easy.

Football? Passing records are broken seemingly every year by the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. The single-season rushing record is still held by Eric Dickerson, but the total hardly rings in the ears of fans like the number 714 once did – or 18 does now.

Basketball? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time scoring leader, but it’s hardly common knowledge. Even a diehard fan could be excused for guessing Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan.

Hockey? Wayne Gretzky’s multitude of records is so untouchable, there is no debate.

Tennis? Roger Federer leads with 17 career Grand Slam titles, but each of the top three - Federer, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal - competed in the current generation, hardly fueling disputes against players of previous eras.

Gone, too, are the days of other individual record holders such as Roger Bannister or Mark Spitz, their achievements long since surpassed.

All of which leaves us with golf’s major championship record as the logical successor as the most widely debated mark, the one we care about and argue over more than any other.

There was a time when 714 was the most important number in sports. Today that number is 18.


Tiger Woods

“Will Tiger pass Jack?”

One of the endless criticisms we golf media types hear most often is: “You guys spend wayyy too much time covering Tiger!!!”

My response has always been the same. It’s called the law of supply and demand. When the public stops demanding so much Woods coverage, we’ll stop supplying it.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Of GolfChannel.com’s 30 highest trafficked stories in our GolfTalkCentral section this year, 17 were directly or indirectly about Woods, including each of the top five.

Need more proof? Try this: In the second round of this year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Woods flirted with a 59 before settling for a 61 and taking a seven-stroke lead. The next 36 holes became nothing more than a coronation, as he cruised to victory by that same seven-stroke differential. And yet, television ratings in comparison with the previous year’s compelling duel between late-charging Keegan Bradley and fast-faltering Jim Furyk were up 173 percent on Saturday and 138 percent on Sunday.

Woods has triumphed in 79 of his 309 career PGA Tour starts, but his dominance amongst the mainstream consciousness is much greater.

Consider it yet another commonality between Tiger and Jack.

Your grandmother knows who Jack Nicklaus is. So does your neighbor who’s never touched a golf club. They might refer to him as “Jack Nicholson,” but they know who they mean; they’re keenly aware of the existence of golf’s all-time leading major winner.

Therein lies much of the fascination with the record.

The race for baseball’s career home run mark has featured some all-time greats, but it can be argued that the game’s best players – from Joe DiMaggio to Ted Williams to Mickey Mantle to Willie Mays – were never involved. Golf’s most important record doesn’t lack for star power. You’d be hard-pressed to find even a few Trivial Pursuit junkies who can name Walter Hagen as the man in third place, but everyone knows Jack and Tiger.

Our question is also so significant because it represents a classic generational rivalry. There is no tangible way of comparing athletes from different eras, leaving such arguments open to debate. In the eyes of many, though, there is no such debate in golf. The Greatest of All Time, the GOAT, is determined by a single number.

In these minds, even though Tiger will soon own the PGA Tour victory record, even though his winning percentage is far and above that of anyone else, until he reaches that No. 18, he won’t be the GOAT.


Jack Nicklaus

“Will Tiger pass you?”

On Sept. 19, Jack Nicklaus walked into a South Carolina pizza parlor that he owns and was confronted by the following question from a reporter: "Do you think Tiger Woods is going to pass your record?"

A few quick points here:

Yes, it's both charming and mystifying that Nicklaus owns a pizza parlor in Charleston, S.C. It's called DeSano Pizza Bakery - and reportedly the food is excellent.

And yes, Nicklaus answered the way he always answers. He didn’t snarl, didn’t sigh deeply at having to answer a question he’s already answered roughly 53,279 times before.

All of which probably explains why it’s asked so frequently. To Nicklaus’ unending credit, on every single occasion he's offered the same response.

"If you look at it realistically,” he replied, “Tiger’s probably got another 10 years of top golf. That's 40 majors. Can he win five of them? I think he probably will."

But Nicklaus' response isn’t the most surprising takeaway from this story. No, the most surprising part is that after all these years – after hearing the same question and carefully pondering it the same way and reciting the same seemingly original thought – he still enjoys being asked about it.

Those outside the golf media might think Nicklaus is some kind of  Wizard of Oz, a disembodied voice hidden behind the curtain, decreeing his opinions on the game’s biggest issues. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, he is extremely approachable.

Nicklaus was hanging out in the media center during the recent Presidents Cup at his own Muirfield Village when I asked him about repeatedly answering the same question.

“I don’t mind answering the question; it never bothers me to answer the question,” Nicklaus explained. “I’m the guy who benefits from it. Every time Tiger’s name is mentioned about winning major championships, my name is in the same article. That’s been great for me. It’s been 27 years since I won a major championship and they’re still talking about my record. That’s fabulous for me.

“The question is kind of fun for me. I suspect somebody is going to break my record someday, whether it’s Tiger or somebody else. When they do, that’s OK. I did the best I could when I played and if somebody breaks it, they break it.”


Tiger Woods

“Will you pass Jack?”

Woods has been asked this question in more situations than he can remember. In news conferences and post-round interviews, at dinner parties and the gym. In a few dozen countries. By elderly fans who remember Nicklaus’ first major win and by children who weren’t even born when Woods won his first.

And he’s been answering the same way for as long as he’s been chasing the record, steadfast in his rationale that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

From 2001: “If I can keep putting myself there for the next, you know, 15, 20, 30 years, whatever it is, I'll win my share. And I will lose my share, too.”

From 2006: “If you're lucky enough to get anywhere near Jack's record, awfully lucky to pass him, if it happens, it's going to take a career. It took Jack over 20 years to get his. There's no way you can ever have it happen quickly.”

From 2010: "I look at it this way: [Ben] Hogan won all nine of his [majors] at my age and older.”

From 2013: “I would like to be able to get to that point. It took Jack awhile to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there's plenty of opportunities for me.”

I recently asked Woods about being asked that question.

Does it amuse you? Does it annoy you? Are you sick of it?

He laughed for a few seconds, paused carefully and said, “No comment.” Then he commented.

“I've been out here for the better part of 17 years,” he said. “I've been asked that quite a few times. I don't think that's going to change.”

He’s right, obviously. Woods has a keen understanding of his place on the game’s totem pole of legends. But I’ve never been sure that he quite realizes the media's and public's fascination with his personal career goals. It shows in his responses. Ask him about last night’s football game or a new hole location on the seventh green and Woods is more than happy to expound with well-spoken opinions.

Ask him about the record, though, and you’ll receive the boilerplate special, his lips offering the usual rhetoric while his eyes scowl, “Again?! Really?!”

If Woods doesn’t entirely understand the public’s fascination with his chase, then the public similarly doesn’t understand that every moment of his life isn’t spent in deep thought and burning desire over catching and passing Nicklaus. That may sound disingenuous after he’s spent so many years telling us how much it means, but it makes perfect sense. 

He doesn’t drop his kids off at school with the singular thought of winning 19 majors. He doesn’t eat lunch while consumed by Nicklaus’ accomplishments.

And so while the rest of us seem unhealthily preoccupied by golf’s most enduring question, it’s likely that we think about it even more than the man around whom it revolves.

After asking Woods that aforementioned question, I followed by inquiring whether, as a golf historian and sports fan, he could comprehend this public fascination with his personal goal. 

“I'd probably be the wrong person to ask because I'm part of that question,” he answered. “I'm actually in the question.  It's one of those things where I think I'm still playing, I'm still active, I'm still competing at a very high level. But the wins fall where they fall.  After it's all said and done, you can look back and have a better picture of it.”


Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods

“Will Tiger pass Jack?” 

I know what you’re thinking. Despite the earlier caveat that this piece would be only an exploration into our collective obsession with this question, you were secretly hoping for an answer. You were hoping for some hint or clue which would subtly shape your opinion, eventually helping win those 19th-hole discussions over cold beverages.

Sorry, but you’ve got a better chance consulting a Magic 8 Ball. 

There are days when Tiger has that old steely gleam in his eyes, when his iron shots tower over the trees and land softly, when his putts all find the edge of the cup and drop in. On these days, I believe he still has what it takes to win five more majors and someday own sports’ greatest record. 

Then there are days when he shuffles down the fairway like a man twice his age, when his drives won’t stay inside the ropes, when he struggles with the speed on greens he’s played 1,000 times. On these days I start thinking he’ll be lucky to win two or three more of them. 

There’s a big difference in those numbers. My own standard, neutral and completely unfulfilling answer to this question is that I think he’ll finish with between 17 and 19 majors. But I always qualify that response by maintaining that I hope Woods gets at least three more. That would put him at 17, just one away from sharing the record. 

If we all agree there’s a lot of debate and discussion over the record now, just wait. 

For the rest of Woods’ career, every time he shows up at a major, we’ll wonder whether this could be the one: When he turns 46, the same age as Nicklaus when he won No. 18. When he’s 48, the same age as Julius Boros, who holds the mark as the oldest major champion. Hell, two decades from now, when he’s 58 and gray-haired (if he still has hair) and wrinkled, he’ll step to the first tee at Augusta National and we’ll remind ourselves that Nicklaus finished sixth there at the same age, and if Nicklaus can come close then Woods can do it, and the very thought leaves this tiny notion lodged in the faraway region of our minds: “Maybe this could be the year.” 

Until that time, Tiger remains steadfast in his position that nobody knows what the future will hold. He’s right about that. 

Meanwhile, Jack is enjoying his reign atop the mountain. Keep asking the question. He’ll keep pondering the answer as if it’s the first time he’s ever considered it, then offer a thoughtful response. 

“It’s actually kind of fun,” he admits. “Maybe someday I’ll come up with another answer.”