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Will Woods break Nicklaus' majors record

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods dominates golf again. For a long while, there was a real question whether that would happen. He did go more than two years without winning a PGA Tour tournament. He struggled with injuries and swing changes. He snap-hooked drives into the wilderness. A few more putts lipped out. He seemed to drift mentally – he stopped thriving on Sundays.

Now, though, he looks reborn. He is back to hitting his driver so well he spins the club and does not even need to watch the ball land. He stalks putts like the Tiger of old. He’s putting away golf tournaments on Sundays. Yes, he looks reborn.

And, again, we can ask the question: Can Tiger Woods win five more major championships and pass Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer who ever lived?

Why it matters: There is a compelling argument to be made that Tiger Woods does not have anything left to do, that he is already the greatest golfer who ever lived.

Look: Woods already has won 77 PGA Tour events, four more than Nicklaus and just five behind the all-time record held by Sam Snead (and as many as Snead won as an individual). He will break Snead’s record. He has already won more than $100 million in prize money. Nicklaus, in case you are wondering, won $5.7 million in his career.

Now, some business people have done studies comparing Nicklaus and Woods prize money based on inflation and the much smaller purses of Nicklaus’ time and calculate that Nicklaus actually won as much or even more money than Woods. But Woods’ amazing prize money number is telling for two reasons.

1. Woods’ $100 million is $35 million more than any other golfer.

2. Woods’ popularity almost singlehandedly transformed golf and drove those purses through the stratosphere. In other words, he didn’t just win more money. He CREATED more money.

Woods has what almost everyone would concede is the greatest peak in golf history – four consecutive major championship victories (the Tiger Slam), seven major championships out of 11, the most dominant performances ever at the U.S. Open, Masters and British Open and so on. Then there is the argument that Woods plays in a time when the fields are much deeper than ever before, when the new technology in golf shrinks the gap between the good and the great.

So, yes, you could argue that Woods – even though he has 14 major championships to Nicklaus’ 18 – is the best ever.

But I don’t think that argument is viable, and here’s why: Tiger Woods personally set the guidelines. When he was a kid, he had a poster on his wall of Jack Nicklaus and those 18 major championships. That was the grail. Woods can win 100 PGA Tour events and win $500 million and dominate the game for another decade, but unless he gets to 19 majors, the journey is incomplete.

And nobody understands this more clearly than Tiger Woods himself.

Why Woods will break Jack’s record: There has never been a player quite like him.

Tiger Woods’ story is so familiar, it is just a part of the sports landscape. Golfing prodigy. Brilliant amateur. Historic dominance at Augusta. The Tiger Slam. The U.S. Open on one leg. Long putts that always drop. Magical shots from behind trees. The fist pump, the scowl, the rage, the red shirt on Sunday.

It is all so familiar that it no longer feels miraculous. But Tiger Woods, for much of his career, has been miraculous. Golf was not made to be tamed. Nicklaus finished second at 19 major championships. Ben Hogan, after his magical 1953, never won another major. Tom Watson started missed the come-backers, Nick Faldo stopped being a metronome, Greg Norman never could quite harness all that talent, Phil Mickelson has alternated brilliance and breakdowns his entire amazing career.

But Tiger Woods, for the longest time, seemed able to tilt the game to his will. He could always hit the ball farther, hit the approaches higher, chip and blast with more feel, read the greens better. But there have been other golfers with something close to his talent. What pushed him beyond, it seems, was a sixth sense, this ability to make the long putt or the wonder shot precisely when he needed it.

You will remember his famous chip at No. 16 at Augusta, when he aimed for a sliver of sunlight that was glowing on a hill, then watched the ball roll back down that hill and back down and back down until it stopped at the hole, posed for photographs, and then plopped in. Hitting it close might have been good enough to win the tournament. But with Tiger Woods, good enough was never good enough. It had to fall in the hole.

With that sort of wizardry … well, of course he will break Jack’s record.

Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters Tournament

(Click here or on the image above to view Tiger Woods' career in photos)

Why Woods will not break Jack’s record: He’s 37 years old.

People don’t want to believe that golfers age like other athletes .... but they do.  Do you know how many golfers the last 50 years have won five major championships after age 37? Of course you know: Zero. No one has done it since Ben Hogan, and Hogan played in a very different time.

Arnold Palmer … Gary Player … Tom Watson … Seve Ballesteros … Nick Faldo … Phil Mickelson … Lee Trevino … none of these guys won five major championships after age 37. Some of them won zero. Jack Nicklaus was one of the great old golfers in the history of the game, maybe the greatest. He won four major championships.

For fun, let’s break down Nicklaus and Woods by age:

Age Major victories (total majors)
21 Woods: Masters (1)
22 Nicklaus: U.S. Open (1)
23 Nicklaus: Masters, PGA (3); Woods: PGA (2)
24 Woods: U.S. Open, British, PGA (5)
25 Nicklaus: Masters (4); Woods: Masters (6)
26 Nicklaus: Masters, British (6); Woods: Masters, U.S. Open (8)
27 Nicklaus: U.S. Open (7)
29 Woods: Masters, British (10)
30 Nicklaus: British (8); Woods: British, PGA (12)
31 Nicklaus: PGA (9); Woods: PGA (13)
32 Nicklaus: Masters, U.S. Open (11); Woods: U.S. Open (14)
33 Nicklaus: PGA (12)
35 Nicklaus: Masters, PGA (14)
38  Nicklaus: British (15)
40 Nicklaus: U.S. Open, PGA (17)
46 Nicklaus: Masters (18)

So you can see a couple of things. You can see that Woods at age 32 won that famous one-legged U.S. Open, and he had 14 majors – he was ahead of Nicklaus. Woods seemed all but certain to break the record. But he hasn’t won since. There are a lot of great golfers who stopped winning majors in their early to mid 30s. Watson was 33 when he won his last British Open. Palmer was 34 when he won his last Masters.

True, Woods hit higher heights than either of them, but age doesn’t play favorites. One day, even Henry Aaron stopped hitting.

Why Woods will break the record: He’s kept himself in great shape.

In so many ways, it was Tiger Woods who introduced real athleticism to golf. His training sessions became legendary. You really don’t see many golfers out there now who look out of shape. Other golfers had to start working out just to try to keep up with Tiger Woods.

Those workouts should make Woods a viable contender for a long time. It’s simple math. Let’s say he can stay competitive for another 10 to 15 years. That’s 40 to 60 major championships, assuming he can stay healthy for all of them. He has to win only five, right? When you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem so daunting.

Why Woods won’t break the record: He’s not in that great shape.

True, Woods is a physical marvel. He’s like 0.00003% body fat or something. He’s probably the greatest overall athlete to play pro golf since Babe Zaharias. This is not to take anything away from that.

But when you talk about physical shape, you have to talk about the injuries. And Woods’ body has betrayed him pretty often these last few years. Woods has had reconstructive knee surgery, he reinjured that knee, he’s had a bum ankle, he has felt a twinge in his lower back at various times. Woods says he feels healthy, and he certainly is playing like he’s healthy at the moment. But he is 37. Bodies just tend to break down in the late 30s and 40s.

Maybe he will stay healthy. But it is a difficult thing to predict perfect health for a golfer in his late 30s or 40s – ESPECIALLY a golfer like Tiger Woods who has had so many injuries already.

Why Woods will break the record: No one has really challenged him.

The long wait for Tiger Woods’ rival has stretched for, what, 15 years? You know the candidates. Phil Mickelson was always the top choice, but there was Ernie Els and Vijay Singh and David Duval. They all had great moments. You might know that Mickelson, Els and Singh are in the Golf Hall of Fame.

But none of them ever really threatened Tiger, none took a major championship away from him, none gave us any persuasive reason to believe they would. There are theories that Woods cowed them, intimidated them, terrified them … but it seems just as likely that they were simply not good enough to beat him. He was just better than any of them physically, mentally and emotionally. And he kept winning.

Woods has struggled in the majors for the last few years, of course, but really little has changed about his competitors. Nobody has taken the No. 1 spot and made it his own. Martin Kaymer? Lee Westwood? Luke Donald? Fine players, all of them, but does anyone believe they will hold up against the firepower of a fully operational Tiger Woods?

The one guy who might hold up is Rory McIlroy, who has shown some Tiger Woods tendencies. But McIlroy’s game, so far, rises and falls like Chicago weather. Nicklaus faced a different breed of competitor. Nicklaus famously finished second 19 times at majors. Tom Watson and Lee Trevino beat him four times each. Arnold Palmer beat him once, Seve Ballesteros beat him once, Johnny Miller beat him once.

Are there enough great golfers out there who will take major championships away from Tiger Woods and prevent him from getting to 19? It doesn’t look that way.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer

(Click here or on the image above for Jack Nicklaus' career in photos)

Why Woods will not break the record: The fields are deeper now than ever before.

Maybe it is true that no one golfer has stepped up to challenge Tiger Woods. But golf is a different game now. There has never been more depth. The truth is any of maybe 50 golfers now can have a magical week and win a major championship. That wasn’t as true in Nicklaus’ day.

Those golfers have stepped forward. There’s a reason that Tiger Woods has not won a major championship in five years*. Sixteen different golfers have won the 18 major championships since Tiger last won (only Padraig Harrington and McIlroy have won multiple majors in the stretch). Maybe Webb Simpson or Charl Schwartzel or Keegan Bradley or Bubba Watson are not better golfers than Tiger Woods – certainly they are not better -- but for that one week they won. Heck, the last time Tiger Woods was in the dominant position to win a major, he was out-dueled by Y.E. Yang.

*Nicklaus’ longest drought – not including his gap between age 40 and 46 – was 12 majors.

It’s a mistake to underestimate the power of crowds. Tiger Woods is the heavy favorite to win the Masters this week. He has won three times this year, dominated the season so far. And yet, the odds are that he will not win the Masters this week. He enters every major championship facing those odds.

Why Woods will break the record: He’s putting brilliantly again.

The reason so many golfers fade from the scene is that they stop making putts. Ben Hogan was the best striker of the golf ball for many years after he won his last major championship, but he could not putt the ball in the hole. Tom Watson famously struggled with testy 4-foot putts, so much so that he would get letters of advice from all over the world. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh and Fred Couples all maintained beautiful golf swings but their putting let them down.

Tiger Woods’ putting fell off a bit the last three or four years … but that’s only compared with the old Tiger Woods. Even in his struggles, he often still salvaged pars with his spectacular short game and putting. Now he’s making the long and important putts again.

It’s impossible to say that anyone is yip-proof. But Woods looks pretty close. Woods’ putting is so good that he figures to have some majors where – like Ben Crenshaw at the Masters or Brandt Snedeker in his amazing run the last few months – he doesn’t hit the ball all that well and he simply putts his way to the title.

Why Woods will not break the record: He has stopped winning Masters.

Nicklaus was great at the all the majors, of course. He won four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships. But the Masters was the key. He won six of them and finished top four every year from 1971 to 1979. He was so good at the Masters that well into his 50s, he felt certain – utterly certain – that he could win. He was 58 when he finished Top 10 in 1998. He thought he could have won.

Woods has been near the top of the Masters board almost every year, but he has not won the Masters since 2005. Last year, he finished 40th, worst since he missed the cut as an amateur. The course has changed a lot over the last 15 years – they added a little rough, stretched out some holes, brought in various new angles – and many people say they have Tiger-proofed it.

Maybe they have, maybe they have not … but Woods cannot break this record without winning the Masters again at least once, maybe twice. The Masters is the one major played in the same place every year, the one place where the golfer has some sort of control, where experience plays a huge part, where time can stand still. Plus the Masters is the first major of the year; it can define a golfer’s season.

Woods has finished top five at the Masters five times since 2005, but it’s a bit of a stretch to say he came close to winning it any of those times. Woods has never come from behind to win a major. This is a big week for him, to say the least.

What Nicklaus says: It probably won’t surprise you that Nicklaus has the best thought about Tiger Woods’ chances. Nicklaus has long been one of the greatest interviews in sports – not because he says controversial things (he doesn’t) or funny things (he doesn’t) or especially wise things (he does say wise things now and again).

No, it’s that Nicklaus – better than just about anyone – answers questions succinctly and without the fog of cliché. He pierces to the heart of the question. So, Jack, do you think Tiger Woods will break the record?

“I think Tiger will do it,” Nicklaus says. “I think he’s too talented and too focused not to do it. Yes, I think Tiger will do it.”

“But,” he adds, and he has that glint in his eye, “he’s gotta go do it.”

Nicklaus’ summation is just about perfect: Woods will not break the record by coasting to the line. This record is not like Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games streak or Brett Favre breaking the all-time passing yardage record. Attendance alone will not get it done. The only way Woods will break the record is to go out there and beat the best golfers in the world in the most intense tournaments five more times. Nobody will hand it to him. No golf course will give him special breaks because he’s Tiger Woods. He’s gotta go do it.

I’m on record: I don’t think he will break Nicklaus’ record. I’d love to see him do it, but I don’t think he will. Five majors is a first-ballot Hall of Fame career … only 14 golfers in the history of the game have won five majors in their entire lives, and that includes James Braid, who won five British Opens in the early 1900s, which doesn’t seem to align with today’s times.

A short list of great golfers who have not won five majors: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Ray Floyd, Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Vijay Singh, Billy Casper, Payne Stewart, Bobby Locke, Nick Price – the list goes on and on and on.

In my opinion, nobody has ever played golf as well as Tiger Woods. I’m not even sure anyone has ever been especially close. And if Woods wins this week in Augusta, maybe things start to tilt back toward him. He’d be down to needing four majors, he’d be playing brilliantly, he’d have broken the Masters dry spell … but he hasn’t won the Masters yet.

As Nicklaus says: He’s got to do it. I don’t think there’s quite enough time or brilliance left in Tiger Woods’ bag. But I hope I’m wrong.

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