WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – “Will Tiger pass Jack?”
That quaint four-word query is golf’s answer to, “Who shot J.R.?” It stalks the undercurrent of the game, forever pressing against its imprint, lingering until the day either an affirmative answer is reached or the spector fades into oblivion.
In at least one way, though, Tiger Woods has already officially cruised past Jack Nicklaus. No, not in the Holy Grail of golf’s all-time records, of course – his 18 major championships remain the gold standard in that department – but on the PGA Tour career victory list.
Woods chased down the man whose likeness adorned his bedroom walls as a child at Jack’s own tournament last month, then one-upped him with a 74th career win at his AT&T National, leaving an impressive array of talent in his wake that includes not only Nicklaus but Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson, as well.
Next up on the hit list? The only man left ahead of him.
Sam Snead won 82 titles during a storied PGA Tour career that included victories in four different decades. While Tiger’s pursuit of Jack’s vaunted major mark receives the majority of the attention, he’s been trying to beat Sam for just as long.
On Tuesday, prior to his first career start at The Greenbrier Classic on the very property where Snead served in a professional capacity from 1944 until his death in 2002, Woods spoke about his first attempt to beat the legend.
“I met Sam when I was five,” Tiger recalled. “He was playing at Calabasas out in L.A., doing that outing where he would play with a new group every two holes. So he had nine groups, and I was this little snot-nosed kid at five years old that he had to play the last two holes with.
“I remember it was a par-3. You know, I'm five; I can't carry it very far. I hit it into the water and he tells me to go pick it up out of the water. When my dad was alive, he would tell me that I was slightly competitive even at that age and I didn't like him telling me to pick the ball up, because my dad always taught me you play it as it is, there's no such thing as winter rules.
“So I went in and played it and I made bogey on that hole, the par-3, and I made bogey on the last hole. I still have the card at home. He signed it. He went par-par and I lost by two.”
More than three decades later, Woods continues to chase Snead. It was a pursuit that appeared stalled over the past two seasons, when he failed to record a single PGA Tour victory for the first two seasons of his professional career.
In recent months, though, the hunt has been rejuvenated.
Woods has claimed three titles in 11 starts so far this year. With that, common sentiment has shifted from focus on the question, “Will Tiger pass Snead?” to the more definitive, “When will Tiger pass Snead?”
With each trophy that Woods hoists aloft following a 72-hole triumph, his chances of passing Snead increase, to the point where it now feels like an inevitability.
Simply looking at it statistically, Tiger has won at a rate of 27 percent during his career – a number which he’s equalled exactly so far this year. With an estimated eight starts remaining this season and – if healthy – a probable 20 next season, he could reach the mark early in 2014. A hot streak could help him to the record sooner; another rut could leave it taking longer.
Either way, it seems very likely that the 36-year-old has plenty of gas in the tank to finally beat Snead.
“I think that Sam's record's just absolutely phenomenal, to do it for that long, to win a PGA Tour event in his 50s,” Woods said. “He didn't exactly have easy guys to play against, Hogan and Nelson. Those guys aren't chops, so to be able to do it that long for that many generations, five decades of doing it, it's pretty phenomenal. His swing is one of the classic swings that we all try and replicate, we all looked at it, we all analyzed it and we all tried to do it.”
Woods has been trying to beat Snead since he was five years old and the chase continues this week on the very turf that Slammin’ Sam called home.
Will Tiger pass Jack? That remains a question for the ages, one which won’t be answered anytime soon. In the meantime, we should be asking another pertinent query, too: When will Tiger pass Snead?
Check that. With nine titles left to go and nobody else between them, the only real question left to ask may be: “When?”