Amid problems, Tiger Woods' record march suddenly slowing

Tiger Woods is driven off the course by PGA Tour security after withdrawing on the seventh hole.

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Tiger Woods is driven off the course by PGA Tour security after withdrawing on the seventh hole.

At what point did you begin to have doubts about Ken Griffey Jr.?

Because, for the longest time, it seemed he was the chosen one. He was the slugger most likely to succeed Henry Aaron as baseball's all-time home run king.

Just as Earl Campbell was destined to be the NFL's all-time leading rusher, and Jeff Gordon was a cinch to win more NASCAR championships than any driver before him.

Except, of course, none of those things ever happened. Injuries. Slumps. Life. One way or another, something always got in the way.

Which brings us to the man withdrawing from a golf tournament in the middle of a round Sunday afternoon with a tingling sensation in his fingers and a world of questions in his wake.

Is it actually possible Tiger Woods will not catch Jack Nicklaus?

A few years ago, the thought seemed ludicrous. Of course Woods would get the Golden Bear. It had taken Nicklaus 25 years to win a PGA record 18 major championships. And here was Tiger with 14 majors in 12 years.

No, it did not seem possible that Woods could be stopped. He had already survived the rebuilding of his swing, the death of his father and the surgery on his knee. Even the suicide of his image seemed like just another hurdle to be cleared.

But seeing Woods struggle at the Players Championship this weekend before withdrawing because of pain in his neck was enough to make you wonder whether the accumulation of distractions has begun to whittle away at his odds of catching Nicklaus.

It is not just that Tiger has failed to win any of the past seven majors, his longest drought since 2003-04. It is now the question of whether time is slowly turning from ally to enemy.

Personally, I still believe Woods will catch Nicklaus. He is too good, and has overcome too much, to make me believe his career has already hit a point of no return. And, at 34, he still has two more majors than Nicklaus did at the same age.

But one point should not be easily dismissed: Nicklaus was a one-of-a-kind golfer in the latter years of his career.

Nicklaus won six majors after turning 35. That's more than Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo won combined. In other words, Woods is four wins behind Nicklaus, but winning majors at his age should not be taken for granted.

And now there is a new physical ailment to be considered.

Woods told reporters in the locker room Sunday afternoon that he thought he might have a bulging disc. If that's true, his recovery time could be significant. Even a less severe neck injury would be bothersome for a golfer with Woods' fanatical practice habits.

This will reopen inquiries of Woods' infamous traffic accident in November.

Woods had not complained of a neck problem before Sunday, but at the Masters last month, he said a "pretty sore neck" was among the injuries suffered in the wreck.

If this injury is related to the accident, that means it already has been a problem for more than six months.

Suddenly, a season that seemed to set up in Woods' favor is now looking shaky. The next two majors, the U.S. and British opens, are at courses where Woods has been dominant. He won the last U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the past two British Opens at St. Andrews. If the neck injury has an impact in his preparation or his play, it means Woods will have lost a golden opportunity.

And, to be honest, his performance recently is not encouraging. Woods missed the cut at Quail Hollow last week and was struggling to crack the top 50 before pulling out of the Players Championship.

You could make the argument Tiger was heading toward the worst back-to-back efforts in his career. Because, quite simply, Woods does not do this. He does not follow up one bad performance with another stinker.

In fact, one of the best wagers in sports is betting on Woods in his next tournament after missing a cut. Before this season, he failed to make the cut four times in the past decade. And he rebounded by finishing second, third, second and first.

So is this another indication that trouble is ahead?

The optimist would say that Woods struggling at the Players Championship is nothing new. From 2005 to 2007, he had an average finish of 37th at TPC Sawgrass and managed to win five majors in that span.

The optimist would also say Woods has played in pain before and managed to win the 2008 U.S. Open with a torn ligament in his left knee and a stress fracture in his tibia.

So, yes, we have seen Tiger defy the odds a few times over the years.

And, the way things are going, that may be what it takes again.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Amid problems, Tiger Woods' record march suddenly slowing 05/09/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 9, 2010 11:37pm]

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