What's Ahead For Tiger Woods?
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Though one suspects they downplayed their own sense of dominance, Woods echoes Nicklaus. "That's what people fail to realize," he says. "It was not over just because I pulled in the parking lot. Just because I show up doesn't mean they're going to give me the trophy. I had to go earn it. It's still the same thing now, I have to go and out-perform everybody." But, does this Tiger, in his late 30s, still have that desire to go to work? Nicklaus liked to play to a target score on Sunday. Whether he is the man to beat anymore or not, Woods is playing to a target career, both a powerful motivation and a heavy burden.
"I think it's a big year for him," says O'Meara. "Every year that goes by is one less opportunity, and he's not getting younger and the other players are getting better. It puts more pressure on him, but that guy's played under immense pressure and has proven himself. He loves challenges. That's what he lives for."
Getting the ball in play off the tee more consistently, the first goal of Foley and Woods, should help at Augusta National, along with the increased attention he has shifted to his short game as the long game has solidified. When the U.S. Open turns to the thick rough at diminutive Merion, who will find more fairways with long irons than Woods, the very strategy he was pilloried for at Royal Lytham? After the Scottish gale he endured on the wrong side of the draw in the '02 British Open, perhaps Muirfield owes him an even break this time. Oak Hill, the scene of Jack's next to last act, is the outlier, long and hard and a mystery to Woods 10 years ago. Is 2013 a major must-win? As Marv Levy, the Harvard-educated coach of the Buffalo Bills, said before losing one of four Super Bowls, "This is not a must-win. World War II was a must-win."
Maybe last season's missing piece was just "reps," as Woods is fond of saying, or a less creative game, as Chamblee contends, or the natural fading of talent over time or something still deeper. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence at 33, had a disastrous term as governor of Virginia in his late 30s, leading to public opprobrium. While there is no equivalency between being chased around by the British army and being run out of a marriage, rehabilitation and atonement aren't much different in the 21st century than they were in the 18th. As Jon Meachem writes in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, "Jefferson was forced to make his peace with the bitterness of his recent experience. He had to come to terms with the reality that he was no longer an immaculately golden public figure. Unless he convinced himself that no great life was without its mishaps and its mistakes, he would not be able to return to the arena."
Nicklaus has some relevant thoughts about trying to regain form after being away from competition. In Golf & Life: Jack Nicklaus with Dr. John Tickell, Nicklaus says, "When you have been out of golf for a while, and you've gone through some sort of trauma -- as I experienced with my hip surgery -- you've got to relearn, mentally, how to play again. And when you haven't shot decent numbers for a while, it's hard to get a round going and keep it going. It's also hard to do the things you need to do because you're just not used to it -- you don't remember how to do it.
"That's not nerves. It's nerve. You have to regain your nerve, and that's hard to do. It's being able to stand there, look at that flag, stare it down and shoot at it. Sometimes it takes a little bit more nerve to do than before, when it was second nature."
Woods' friend, Notah Begay III, has seen the evolution closer than most. "If you just chart the progression on a standard timeline from when he had his off-course distractions, the whole scandal, and you just look at the performance -- he was trying to make a swing change, he was trying to restructure his personal life -- that's a lot to balance," says Begay. "The first year, pretty poor. Now, he can regularly compete for the No. 1 position in the world and not have to improve that much more. Golf's a very emotional sport. You can't overcome emotional or mental deficiencies with physical talent."
While some now see Woods as a longshot to pass Nicklaus, who believes he won't win another major? Patched on the inside and out, in that instant Woods will have overcome the hangover of his humiliation to reclaim the stage and in the process earn that measure of redemption success is sure to provide. Hogan got hit by a bus and it couldn't stop him from being Hogan. Woods got run over by a different kind of trouble, the trauma demonstrable. Now comes what may be the most fascinating stretch of a wondrous career, the reintegration, underpinned by the pursuit of Nicklaus' major record and the radioactive pressure it is sure to emit the closer it gets; while trying to be a better father to his first family than his own father, Earl, was to his; competing against players, one in particular, who no longer fear his destiny, on a left leg as fragile as a stalk of sea oats.
Woods is aware there are hot dog-throwing moralists who may never find forgiveness in their hearts for him. Winning another major championship, or five, isn't the great eraser, but it would be a powerful salve. America is the land of second chances. If Woods can convince himself he's still big enough for the big moments, the world won't be far behind.
Woods Will Pass Snead, Not The Bear
The dominant theme of Tiger Woods' career has been his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. The under-the-radar story has been his pursuit of Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA Tour victories.
Once a near lock to pass Nicklaus in majors, Woods' prospects have dimmed considerably after holding at 14 through 2009-12. He did pass Nicklaus' victory total with three wins in 2012, giving him 74 and bringing Snead well in sight.
Predicting whether Woods will ultimately reign as the all-time major king is golf's most popular parlor game. Subjective opinions abound, but we have taken a grounded approach by projecting Woods' final win total based on what other elite players have achieved before and after their 37th birthday (Woods hit that mark Dec. 30). The result? Woods is most likely to end his career with 17 majors, one short of Jack, but is on track to blow past Snead for a total of 94 victories.
For career wins we looked at all post-World War II players who won at least 12 times before turning 37, not including those who retired early or are currently younger than 45. That gives us a pool of 17 players who performed at a high level over the first part of their careers, accounting for 389 total victories. After turning 37, those players won 103 tournaments. Thus, the average elite player accounts for 79.1 percent of his victories before turning 37. For Woods, that would mean adding 20 victories (rounded up from 19.6) for a total of 94.