The Ups & Downs
Tiger Woods is winning everything but majors. What's behind the strain of surpassing Nicklaus?
It seems that as the clock begins to tick louder, the volume of the conversation is turned up. Nobody wants the greatest water-cooler topic in golf—probably in all of sports—to end.
Will Tiger Woods break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors?
Will he overcome age, injury, swing changes, trauma and life to somehow win five more majors over the 40 or so he might have left?
Or is it possible that Woods has finally ceased getting better and has abruptly stopped being good enough to win even one more?
In 2013, perhaps the most confounding year of his career, he produced plenty of material for both sides of the argument. With two official tournaments left in September, he'd won five times to reach 79 career victories, three short of Sam Snead's career record. It was the 10th time Woods had won at least that many in a year, three more times than Nicklaus did.
Woods won by four strokes at Torrey Pines and by seven at Firestone. His most impressive victory came at the Players Championship, where he plotted his way around a course that has given him trouble, ending the final round with a perfectly drawn 5-wood on the perilous 18th. It was the most "back" Woods has looked.
By March, he'd overtaken Rory McIlroy to regain the No. 1 ranking. No matter how Woods compares to himself, he has established he's once again the best in the game.
But in the most important measure, Woods didn't win a major. He has been stuck on 14 career majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open, an 18-tournament streak that is the longest of his career by eight. After a tantalizing T-4 at Augusta, he didn't come very close in the remaining three this year. As he had in 2012, Woods came into two of the majors with a victory in his preceding event and generally looked primed for peak performances that somehow didn't happen. "I was very surprised," Nicklaus says. "Absolutely."
The most stunning and perhaps telling development of the season was the way Woods continued to fade on major weekends. For the second full season in a row he didn't break 70 on the weekend, the last time being the fourth round of the 2011 Masters. At the most important moments, when he consistently had been at his best, he was at his worst.
Even when Woods was clearly most "on" at a major, playing beautifully at Augusta, the improbable intervened in a way it never used to. When his fizzing pitch on the 15th hole Friday caromed off the bottom of the flagstick and into the water, it cost him not only the lead, but after a bizarre and mind-blowing post-round penalty, the four strokes that he finished behind the winner. Instead of completely flipping the narrative on his career post-Thanksgiving 2009, the turn of events might go down as Woods' Waterloo.
Indeed, by the conclusion of this year's last major, the idea that Woods might be lacking the stuff to pass golf's ultimate examinations had gained adherents. In the first three months of the year, that had been a decidedly minority view.
Romantics and traditionalists for whom Woods remains the Tiger of old have a harder time making that call. That's where his peers, who have the best view and most respect for Woods' current version of excellence (as well as a reluctance to publicly lay a critical hand on the state of his game), seem to stand.
"His lack of winning a major is the only thing being talked about, which I think is sad," Bill Haas said after the PGA. "I think it's ignorant."
Even former greats who can assess from a distance generally adhere to the formula of the better the player, the better he sees Tiger.
"This guy is just so much more talented than everyone else that it's unbelievable," says Lee Trevino.
To Gary Player, the long gap after Woods' last major win—one that is normally a strong sign that a player's ability to win the biggest events is close to over—doesn't apply. "You can't compare Tiger Woods to normal people," Player says. "In his case, it wouldn't matter if the gap is 10 years. He's always done what no one else does."
Yet the fact remains that 2013 will go down as a dry season that has made Woods' chase more urgent and difficult. Earlier this year, Golf World's David Barrett did a statistical analysis based on the winning patterns of the best post-World War II players before and after their 37th birthdays, Woods' age during the 2013 season. Barrett projected that Woods would end his career with 94 career victories and 17 majors. He turns 38 on Dec. 30.
The specter of injury also diminishes Woods' chances. The frequency of his "dings" went up in 2013 compared to 2012, the most consequential being the left-elbow pain he said began at the Players Championship and bothered him at the Memorial and the U.S. Open. At the Barclays, he announced early in the week that he woke with a stiff back from a soft mattress; by Sunday, spasms literally brought him to his knees. His surgically repaired left knee held up, but it will always be a worry.