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Tiger Woods' approach to Greatest going awry

Tiger Woods was supposed to make a leap toward catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors this year. But Thanksgiving happened.

Associated Press

Tiger Woods was supposed to make a leap toward catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors this year. But Thanksgiving happened.

Here in the History Open, Tiger Woods has been on top of the leaderboard for about a decade.

He was going to be the best, by golly. Another few putts, another few trophies, and it was inevitable. No one could challenge, and no one could compete. He was going to be better than Jack, better than Arnie, better than Ben, better than Tom, better than Bobby, better than Gary, better than anybody.

No one has ever been referred to as the Greatest of All Time at a younger age than Woods, and no one has had fewer arguments over the designation. Tiger was Tiger, and he was five strokes up on history with four to play.

Don't look now, but just like that, Jack Nicklaus is back in the lead.

Just like that, it is no longer inevitable that Woods will overtake him.

Who knows when it happened? Maybe Woods left his greatness between the sheets. Maybe he left his dominance on a nightstand at the No-Tell Motel. Whatever, he is no longer a lock to finish his career as the best ever.

After all of his victories, wouldn't it be a shame if Woods' lasting memory was how his career was derailed after he hit into a sleaze bunker? Since his scandals, it certainly seems as if something has been missing.

This was going to be Tiger's year, remember? Three of the four majors were going to be on grounds that Woods had conquered before. Between Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews — courses where he had won half of his 14 majors — it figured Woods would finish the year right behind Nicklaus.

Instead, Woods has gone 0-for-3, and competitors no longer seem as nervous when his shadow gets close. Blame it on the scrutiny, or blame it on the scandal, but Woods has not been Woods for a long time now. And with every major he does not win, the odds of him passing Nicklaus become a little bit longer.

The truth be told, it probably surprises Nicklaus to find out he is still in contention in this race. After all, he is 70 now, old enough to remember niblicks. For years, he has conceded that Woods was going to pass his 18 victories in majors. Heck, there for a while, the question was whether Woods was going to win more than the 25 Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer won combined.

Before this year's Masters, however, Nicklaus had a word of caution. This was going to be a very important year for Woods as far as breaking the record. After all, Woods hasn't won in 2010, didn't win a major in 2009, and he won only one in 2008. Consider this: From 2000 to 2002, Woods won six majors in three years. Over his past eight years, he has won only six more.

Maybe that's why it's easier to doubt Woods these days. If you pay attention, the latest chatter is whether Woods will ever win another major.

That's ridiculous. He is, after all, Tiger Woods. He's only 34, and golf is a game where Julius Boros won a major at 48 and Nicklaus at 46 and Hale Irwin at 45. Of course Woods will win again.

But will he win again five more times?

In majors?

Maybe not.

After all, it's hard to win majors. It's been said before: There is no defense in golf. Woods can play as hard as he wants, but he can't influence the way, say, Phil Mickel­son plays. He can't do anything about a golfer such as Louis Oosthuizen having one of those kissed-by-the-angels weekends like he had in the British.

Do you know how many active players other than Woods have won five majors? None.

Do you know how many players have ever won five majors in history? Only 18.

Do you know how many golfers have ever won five majors after their 35th birthday, the age Woods reaches in December? None.

Think of it like this. Between now and the time he turns 40, Woods has 21 majors to play (counting this year's PGA). By the way, in his last 21 majors, Woods has exactly five wins. That means he has to be as good over the next five years as he has been the last five. He cannot lose anything to age, or to his wobbly knee, or to the drama his life has become.

In other words, this is no longer a gimme putt for Woods. To do it, Woods has to endure a bad knee, live with the mean old media, make peace with his putter and still win more majors than Mickelson's career total.

On the other hand, it shouldn't be easy to chase down a legend such as Nicklaus.

In hindsight, maybe some of us tried to take the Greatest of All Time designation away from Nicklaus too quickly. When you deal with statistics for a living, there are times you become numb to them. Most numbers leave you feeling like an accountant. But this is one that always struck me as amazing. Besides his 18 victories in majors, Nicklaus also has 19 second places.

That means he was one of the top two in a tournament 37 times. (By contrast, Woods has four second places in majors). That also means that — while the 40th-best player in the world in 2010 is probably vastly superior to the 40th-best player in Nicklaus' heyday — Nicklaus had some guys who could snatch victory away from him.

To sum up: Golf isn't such a bad place if Nicklaus is thought of as the best player of all time.

Before he can take that designation away, Woods has a lot of rough to avoid. Maybe he has a chance.

After all, he is the second-best golfer of all time.

Tiger Woods' approach to Greatest going awry 07/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 9:37pm]
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