The greatest chase in this generation feels as if it is about to be renewed at next week’s U.S. Open.
Tiger Woods looks as if he has the legs again to make the final sprint it takes to catch Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 major championship triumphs.
With his dramatic victory Sunday at the Memorial, Woods could not have delivered that message in a more poignant setting or in more poignant fashion.
His win didn’t just match Nicklaus’ record of 73 PGA Tour titles in Nicklaus’ event at Muirfield Village. It stoked the magnificent possibility Woods still has what it takes to match and pass the Golden Bear’s major championship mark.
“Well, he had to rub it in my face right here, didn’t he?” Nicklaus said in good-natured needling of Woods.
Woods made a Sunday charge that stokes promise as rich for the game as it is for Woods.
Tiger vs. Jack is the matchup of a millennium. It’s the only duel in golf with the potential to trump storylines generated by the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA. The possibility that Woods’ quest is fully re-engaged is the most electric storyline in what’s already a high voltage golf season.
That’s how large Woods’ remarkable flop shot at the 16th was Sunday, how large his three birdies over the final four holes were, how large this major championship summer becomes if history is in tow again behind Woods.
Whether you want to see Woods pass Nicklaus or not, the possibility the chase is renewed excites more than anything in sports today. The possibility is so compelling there will be a sense we’ve been robbed of something promised if Woods doesn’t make a last run at the Golden Bear. There will be the unsatisfying sense we’ve gotten to the end of a great book and there’s no final chapter to read.
That’s what resonated most in the hope behind Woods’ terrific finish Sunday in Columbus, Ohio: The game is on again.
The U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco looms as yet another important test for Woods in his quest. Yes, Woods won Arnold Palmer’s event at Bay Hill and then stumbled miserably at the Masters, but we’ve just seen Woods win in convincing, closing fashion now for the third time in six months. Yes, there will be more stumbles, to be sure, but the steps are so much surer now, the climb seems less precarious. The tools are there to complete the journey.
The Olympic Club will be a stern test, one that will allow Woods to separate himself with the kind of precise ball striking he showed at Muirfield Village. Woods can probably win at Olympic hitting his driver sparingly. That’s a plus, too.
“At Olympic, we're all going to have to hit the ball great there,” Woods said. “That golf course, you can look at the history of guys who were in contention, or who ended up winning, all were wonderful drivers of the golf ball and good, solid iron players. That's what it's going to take there at Olympic, more so than most U.S. Open sites.”
Woods is coming off a confidence building trip to the San Francisco venue early last week.
“When I went out and played Olympic, I hit the ball well there,” Woods said at Memorial. “I said, `Hey, that's as good a prep as any, if I can hit the ball well there. I just basically carried that into this event and hit it great all week.”
Woods tied for 18th when the U.S. Open was last played at The Olympic Club in 1998, but he wasn’t on top of a new swing change back then.
Woods conjured old magic Sunday at Muirfield Village, and he’ll need more of it to catch Nicklaus. The next four major championship triumphs loom with the feeling they’ll be a lot more difficult for Woods to win than his first 14.
If he rebounds from injuries to body and spirit, the last four to tie Nicklaus, the last five to pass him, will be remembered differently than the first 14. They’ll be remembered for what was overcome as much as what was won.