Will Tiger pass Jack?
It's a question that for years has been batted around in 19th holes worldwide like a kitten going after a ball of yarn. Which is to say, everyone gets their turn and no one can unravel the situation.
Those four little words have become the “Who shot J.R.?” of the current sports lexicon, the query firmly entrenched in our consciousness.
Tiger, of course, is Tiger Woods, the second all-time major championship victory leader with 14, currently sidelined once again by injuries. Jack is Jack Nicklaus, a legendary figure and the only man to own more major titles.
If Woods never wins another major championship ... his lasting legacy won't be that of the second-greatest winner, but of the first loser.
And while the former is chasing the latter in many of the game's vaunted records, this is the only one that matters. Can Tiger win five more majors?
I'm here to give you my absolute, unequivocal, expert opinion.
I have no idea.
Anyone who says otherwise is simply speculating and hoping to be correct.
That's not what this column is about, though. I'll let the weary souls in the 19th holes debate the – for now – unanswerable question about Tiger trying to pass Jack.
Instead, let's focus on the byproduct of such long-term debates. Let's discuss what it means for a man to chase history in the midst of physical, technical and emotional issues within his life.
When Roger Maris was trying to surpass Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, he was chided by opponents and booed lustily from fans. He broke the record, but not without some heartache and losing his hair.
Similarly, when Hank Aaron was in the midst of surpassing Ruth's all-time home run record more than a decade later, he was taunted by racial derisions and often received death threats.
Woods may not face the same witch-hunt against his cause as those record-breakers, but there are certainly those who don't wish for him to pass Nicklaus. It has become such a widely held subplot within the game, though, that there may only be two logical conclusions.
If Tiger passes Jack, he's a success. And if he doesn't, he's a failure.
Think about that for a minute. If Woods never wins another major championship for a combination of reasons including injury and emotional distress, his lasting legacy won't be that of the second-greatest winner, but of the first loser.
Seve Ballesteros recently passed away with five major victories and was hailed as an all-time great – as well he should have been. Woods owns nine more majors and yet if he fails to reach Nicklaus the lasting image of his career will be more about what he didn't accomplish than what he did.
That's a brutally difficult concept under which to play championship-caliber golf – even for one of the mentally toughest players in the game's history.
You've got to wonder whether Woods believes it, too. He's a guy who grew up with a Nicklaus poster on his bedroom wall, who knew all about the man's records – especially the most important one.
Everything he does to advance his professional career these days is toward that one common goal: To win major championships. As Woods said last month and has said numerous times over his career, "The whole idea is that I peak four times a year."
As much pressure as Woods places on himself to continue chasing Nicklaus’ record, it may pale in comparison to the pressure being placed on him from the outside world. For so long, he wasn’t just a candidate to become the all-time leader in major victories, he was expected to ascend to that throne. It was always less a matter of “if” than “when.”
Now, of course, that preconceived probability has been downgraded to a possibility – or as some believe, an impossibility.
Woods announced on Tuesday that he would forego next week’s U.S. Open due to lingering leg injuries. That means he will have gone more than three years without a major win before he makes his next appearance.
At 35, there is still plenty of time to conquer Nicklaus’ achievement, but if he doesn’t – if he fails to fulfill what was long believed to be his destiny – he will be remembered more for coming up short than contending for the title.
It isn’t that Woods will fail to break the record, it’s that he brought such failure upon himself. If he didn’t change his swing so frequently during his career … if he didn’t commit infidelity in his marriage … if he didn’t continue trying to play through injuries … then maybe we would have witnessed history.
That will be the backlash against him should he someday close his career as the second all-time major winner. The prevailing sentiment will be less about celebrating his career and more about how he robbed observers from getting an opportunity to see what could have been the most enthralling sports moment of their lives.
There’s still a long way to go until we get to that point. Will Tiger pass Jack? Maybe, maybe not. If he doesn’t, though, his legacy will forever endure as the guy who let it get away rather than the one who came so close.
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