With hindsight being 20/20, there’s no way to know if 2014 will be the metaphorical split in the road in Tiger Woods’ drive to Jack Nicklaus’ golden record of 18 major championships – but the eerie signs of such a break abound.
Following news on Tuesday that Woods is at home recovering from back surgery and will not play next week’s Masters, the cosmic calling card that binds the game’s top two titans was as clear as the iconic view down Augusta National’s opening hole.
“After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done,” Woods said in a statement.
Woods acknowledged that the recovery will take some time and hopes to return to action “sometime this summer,” which means the world No. 1’s major drought will officially run to six years.
On the cosmic leaderboard it should be noted that Nicklaus’ longest Grand Slam swoon was 20 majors without a “W,” from the 1980 PGA Championship to his signature victory at the 1986 Masters at 46 years old.
Through a mixture of injuries (from leg and knee problems in 2008 after his historic U.S. Open victory to his most recent back issues) 22 majors have been played since Woods last hoisted a Grand Slam chalice.
Even in Woods’ own release on Tuesday, he seems to concede the crucial juncture where he now finds himself, if not the need for a speedy recovery.
“It’s tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future,” Woods said. “There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I've said many times, Sam (Snead, with 82 career PGA Tour victories) and Jack (Nicklaus) reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”
In his prime, when he was collecting majors at an alarming rate, both records appeared destined to fall. But time and injuries have made the forgone conclusion feel more like a crap shoot, particularly as it applies to Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
On this, 2014 was shaping up to be a seminal year in Woods’ quest. Until this year Woods and Nicklaus were neck and neck on the yardstick of greatness. But in 1978, at the age of 38, Nicklaus won major No. 15 at the Open Championship.
Woods, who turned 38 last December, remains at 14 majors and is officially on the clock.
While Woods estimates that he hopes to return to action “sometime this summer,” two Tour trainers told your scribe these types of back surgeries, a microdiscectomy that alleviates pressure on a pinched nerve, normally requires a three- to four-month recovery period.
Woods will need to restore the muscle in his lower back before he can return to his ballistic ways on the golf course and both trainers said a more realistic return to action may be sometime around the PGA Championship, which also puts the Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup playoffs in jeopardy.
More importantly, however, will be the potential lost opportunities next week at Augusta National and the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
At this leg in his climb to greatness, Nicklaus’ most valuable attribute may have been his ability to stay in the game. Nicklaus missed just one major in his prime because of injury, the 1983 Masters with a back injury, ironically enough.
Woods has already missed the Open Championship and PGA in 2008 (left knee and leg injuries) and the 2011 U.S. Open and Open Championship (left Achilles' tendon injury); and now seems mired on the indefinite DL for at least the early part of the ’14 major championship season.
It’s also worth noting that the ’78 Open Championship, Nicklaus’ 15th Grand Slam tilt, was his 67th major. Next week’s Masters would have been Woods’ 65th major start.
For his part, Nicklaus took the long view regarding Tuesday’s news.
“I am sorry to hear that Tiger will miss the Masters tournament. I know Tiger has been working very hard to return to form, and as I have said many times, Tiger has a lot of years of good golf ahead of him,” Nicklaus said.
“I hate to see him robbed of some of that time by injury. But we all know he is doing what is in the best interest of his health and future. I wish him well on a speedy recovery.”
When it comes to such a lofty conversation, Nicklaus’ is perhaps the only voice worth listening to and his take should be the day’s top headline – if Tiger is healthy, his quest for 18 majors is still alive.
Perhaps, but that is starting to feel like a big if and there was no mistaking the looming fork in the road.