AUGUSTA, Ga. – When you’ve accomplished as much as Tiger Woods there are few, if any, who can relate.
Greatness can be a lonely destination, so it was understandable that as Woods plowed through the history books in his prime he built a kinship with Roger Federer. The two would famously trade text messages, throwing electronic shade at every opportunity as they played a game of Grand Slam one-upmanship.
Those exchanges dried up over the last decade. Woods’ last major was nearly 11 years ago at the 2008 U.S. Open and since then Federer won the “Channel Slam” (the 2009 French Open and Wimbledon) and compiled a career total of 20 majors.
With Woods mired at 14 majors that’s game over, right?
Perhaps 20 majors is a bit lofty for a 43-year-old with a rebuilt and fused back but if Sunday’s drama at Augusta National is any indication the race is far from over - if not for Federer’s Grand Slam mark then certainly for golf’s ultimate benchmark of 18 majors set by Jack Nicklaus.
The Masters was Woods’ 29th start in a major since his victory at the ’08 U.S. Open moved him to 14 on the Grand Slam scale and as an assortment of injuries took a toll it become more and more likely that Nicklaus’ mark had fallen out of reach.
But that changed on Sunday when Woods closed with a 70 at Augusta National for a one-stroke victory. Major No. 15, Masters No. 5 and PGA Tour victory No. 81 were so much more than simply a mile marker on his road to sporting immortality. After so many years of doubt and disappointment this was a kickstart that’s impossible to ignore.
After being widely dismissed for years, Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 majors is again back in Woods’ crosshairs.
“I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I saw this as something that could potentially happen. The 15th major was always going to be the hardest one,” Rickie Fowler said. “I don’t doubt this could be his most special. It keeps 18 [majors] in play.”
Fowler was among a large contingent of players who waited for Woods in the scoring area to celebrate what could be the seminal moment of his career.
“This is definitely one of the greatest comebacks I think anybody's ever seen, 81; 15; I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think,” Brooks Koepka said.
Koepka, who held off Woods down the stretch at last year’s PGA Championship and finished runner-up on Sunday, is of the biggest hurdles between Woods and Nicklaus’ greatness, but after Tiger's performance in Augusta it’s more likely this becomes a question of simple math.
Woods has 23 potential Grand Slam starts before turning 50. For context, from the 1999 PGA Championship to the 2005 Open, 24 starts, Woods won nine majors. That was undeniably Woods’ prime but winning three of the next 23 certainly becomes much more attainable, particularly when you consider that he has now finished inside the top 10 in the last three majors (second at last year’s PGA Championship and sixth at The Open).
“To me it was never unreasonable [Woods would win 18 majors],” Justin Thomas said.
But if time isn’t exactly on Woods' side in his historic quest there’s something to be said for familiarity. On venues like Augusta National, where institutional knowledge is so important, he could theoretically expect to contend well into his late-40s and early-50s. Fred Couples finished sixth at the Masters as a 50-year-old in 2010 and Bernhard Langer tied for eighth in ’14 at 56. Nicklaus was 58 when he tied for sixth in '98.
This year’s major venues set up particularly well for Woods with the U.S. Open returning to Pebble Beach, where he lapped the field at the 2000 edition, and the PGA Championship at Bethpage, the site of his ’02 U.S. Open victory.
Historically, Woods’ quest for 18 majors stretches the bounds of aging reason. At 43 years, 3 months, 15 days he is the second oldest Masters champion behind Nicklaus who was 46 when he won in 1986. Julius Boros set the standard for ageless achievement in golf when he won the ’68 PGA Championship at 48. Although Nicklaus won just three majors in his 40s, times have changed and longevity is the norm.
“We know how important it is to eat perfectly and to train and also the recovery tactics that you have to employ, especially as you get older. As we get older, it sucks hopping in those ice baths, but it's just part of the deal,” Woods said. “In this sport, we're able to play a much longer period of time, and you're just seeing guys that are taking care of their bodies a lot better and able to play longer.”
If he can take care of that body that has endured so many setbacks and if he can avoid the injury-related pitfalls that have made the last half dozen years a study in diminishing returns the only limit to Woods’ ceiling is the incessant drumbeat of time.
“I felt for a long time he was going to win again. And, you know, the next two majors are at Bethpage, where he’s won, and Pebble Beach, where he’s won. So, you know, he’s got me shaking in my boots, guys,” Nicklaus said on Golf Channel’s “Live From The Masters” on Sunday.
As is his way, Woods had no interest in putting this victory in historical context or assessing his suddenly improved chances of catching Nicklaus. After 11 years adrift in the Grand Slam wilderness he simply wanted to savor the moment.
“Well, I don't know if he's worried or not,” Woods said when asked about Nicklaus’ record. “I'm sure he's home in West Palm just chilling and watching.”
It’s understandable that Woods would opt to savor the accomplishment considering how far he travelled for Grand Slam redemption. Enjoy the moment, the quest for No. 16 begins in 31 days at the PGA Championship.