June 25, 2007

Tiger's fifth-year challenge

Another big year in the majors can move him ahead of Jack Nicklaus' pace

The only competition in pro golf that's keeping some of us awake these days is the one between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Everything else is Rory Sabbatini. Some kind of Italian restaurant in SoHo or something, I don't know.

The sixtysomething Nicklaus probably never thought he'd still be competing for majors in the 21st century. But there he is, duking it out with Tiger in this crucial year. Forget that Tiger is doing his duking on the courses while arithmetic is doing it for Jack. It's still the only notable battle that's going on in your basic world of golf.

It's a crucial year, because this is Tiger's fifth full year on tour, and it's up to him to equal or pass or fall behind Jack's five-year record in the majors, starting with the Masters, which is soon to be upon us—have the country ham and peach cobbler ready, please.

Another thing you can forget is whether Tiger will have achieved the Grand Slam if he wins the Masters in April. It won't be. Those other three majors were in 2000. Last time I looked, this is 2001. It's carved in marble in several locales that a Grand Slam can only be accomplished in one calendar year. One place it's carved is here, right next to my desk.

Tiger has one thing going for him this year. Even if he fails to win a major in 2001—goes zip, nada, Circle O Ranch, Xerox—he will still have the same number of majors that Nicklaus collected at more or less the same stage of his career.

It's the Amateur thing, you see. Tiger came into the pros lugging around three U.S. Amateur trophies—those he won at TPC Sawgrass in '94, Newport in '95, and Pumpkin Ridge in '96. Jack came into the pros with two U.S. Amateur trophies—those he won at Broadmoor in '59 and Pebble Beach in '61.

What this means is that Tiger and Jack both have eight majors at the moment. So this year Tiger can pass Jack in the overall total of majors if he captures just one of the biggies that will be played at Augusta National, Southern Hills, Royal Lytham St. Annes, and Atlanta Athletic Club.

The PGA Tour tries to complicate things by saying that Tiger's first full year as a pro was 1996, when he played eight tournaments after leaving the amateur ranks in late August. He did win two of them, but it seems absurd to say that only eight tournament appearances in the fall—after all four majors are over, incidentally—constitutes a year.

Jack's record in the majors in his first five pro years is what you call your awesome. It reads:

__ 1962: Won the U.S. Open.

1963: Won the Masters and PGA.

1964: Xerox, but runner-up in the Masters, British Open and PGA.

1965: Won the Masters, runner-up in PGA.

1966: Won the Masters and British Open.__

That's six professional majors, and a near 10.

The gents who were second to Jack in those championships—the guys he beat, in other words—make an interesting list. They were Arnold Palmer (twice), Gary Player, Tony Lema, Doug Sanders, Gay Brewer, Tommy Jacobs, Dave Ragan and Dave Thomas. And the courses he won on were Augusta National (thrice), Oakmont, Dallas Athletic Club and Muirfield.

Now for Tiger. His four-year record reads:

__ 1997: Won the Masters.

1998: Xerox, but third in the British Open.

1999: Won the PGA, tied for third U.S. Open.

2000: Won the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA.

__ That's five pro majors—could have been seven—and the only other Triple that's been accomplished, which puts him in a rather elite category with Ben Hogan.

The guys Tiger dusted to win his majors were Tom Kite, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els (twice), Thomas Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Bob May or Bob Who, as in Nicklaus' two Dave Whos, meaning Thomas and Ragan.

And the courses Tiger won on—three of which he thoroughly demolished—were Augusta National, Medinah, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla. Thus, Nicklaus has a Dallas Athletic Club in his past just as Tiger has a Valhalla—if anybody besides the PGA of America gets my drift.

One of Tiger's caretakers assures me that Tiger is as familiar with Jack's stats as Jack may be, is aware of his arithmetic battle with Jack, and knows the importance of this year.

It'll be more fun to watch than the tour, is what I say about it.