On the surface, some folks could argue that too much is being made of Tiger Woods’ chase to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the greatest major championship winner in golf history. After all, they could point out, Woods is barely ahead of the pace Nicklaus set decades earlier.
InsertArt(1598028)THE EVIDENCE, PLEASE: In his first 24 starts as a professional in the majors, Woods has eight wins, Nicklaus had seven.
Certainly, one could read into that and form the assumption that Woods has a long way to go, but look deeper. You’d be surprised as to how much faster Woods’s pace is than what Nicklaus put together.
Consider the first 10 years for Nicklaus, 1962-1971. Sure, he started piling up the majors quickly, winning one in his rookie season, then two the next. In his first six seasons, only once did Nicklaus go a campaign without winning a major, that being 1964 (he was runner-up three times). But after winning the 1967 U.S. Open, Nicklaus went 12 majors before winning another. By the time 1971 had ended, Nicklaus had prevailed in nine of the 40 majors he had taken part in.
Terrific numbers, but they could pale in comparison to Woods’, if the young man’s pace continues as it has been going. For the purpose of this argument — remember, we’re talking majors, and Woods wasn’t eligible for any of them in 1996, so we’re going with 1997 as his first season — Woods’ 10th full season on Tour won’t be concluded until the end of 2006.
That means he has 16 majors left before he reaches 40 and if he wins just one of the next 67 he’ll be dead even with the pace set by Nicklaus — that is, 9 major titles in 40 starts.
Only thing is, for a guy batting .333 in the majors (8-for-24), does anyone see Woods all of a sudden slumping to .063 (or, 1-for-16)? Heck, let’s say he tails off to .250 and wins just 4 of the next 16, that would give him 12 major titles, compared to nine for Nicklaus over a similar time frame.
If you project out through 2016, at which time Woods would be playing as a 40-year-old, a total of 56 major chances will have presented themselves. Could he go 11-for-56 (.196) and surpass Nicklaus’s mark of 18? No one is betting against him (after all, has he rewritten history books on a regular basis), especially since he has something that Nicklaus never had.
Not to suggest Nicklaus didn’t work hard, but honestly, majors weren’t the big deal then that they are now. Sure, he geared for them, but he never remembers hearing talk about getting more major wins than Bobby Jones’ 13, so it’s no surprise that Nicklaus by his own admission got a little fat and content during that cold streak between the 1967 U.S. Open and the 1970 British. There was nothing to push Nicklaus, it seems, for he had already secured his spot above the golf world and who else was pushing him?
When it comes to Woods, many things seem certain, but none more than this — there’s no way he is going to grow fat and complacent. That’s because unlike Nicklaus in 1967-70, Woods has a clear, definitive plan, and it most assuredly includes going beyond 18 professional major championships. And as good a job as Nicklaus did of demoralizing his competition, Woods is far superior in that category, too.
Opponents always seemed to at least have hope against Nicklaus. First of all, he didn’t have a killer short game and he was very much indifferent with the wedge. OK, he may have made more birdie putts on the 72nd hole of major championships than anyone in history and by all accounts he managed a golf course as effectively as Bill Russell played defense, but there were a slew of second-place finishes and one could argue Nicklaus may have won a few of those had he played more aggressively. Strictly, it’s an argument that never can be settled, but with Woods, you don’t really have that gray area. That’s because, when he’s had a chance to win, he’s won.
InsertArt(1598029)Only at Royal Birkdale in 1998, Pinehurst in 1999 and Hazeltine in 2002 could you even suggest that Woods let major chances slip away, but those would be stretches. At Birkdale, Woods was starting well back when he closed with a 66 to nearly catch Mark O’Meara and Brian Watts. At Pinehurst in the ’99 Open, he was tied for third starting Round 4, shot 70, but was outplayed by Payne Stewart. No shame there.
And most recently, at Hazeltine, Woods trailed by five shots entering the final round and shot a 67, which included birdies on the last four holes. Credit Rich Beem for posting a 68 to prevail by one.
That was Woods only second in a major. He’s been third once and tied for third another time, but the story of his major championship golf can be summed up neatly — his first 11 tournaments were used as an education, the next 13 have been used to apply an expertise that the defies logic.
Will he cool off? Sure. He won’t keep up a pace that has seen him win six of the last 12 majors. More likely, he’ll slump to about 3-in-8. That will give him 11 majors by the end of 2004, 15 by mid 2007, and 19 by 2009. Nicklaus’ record having been realized, Woods will be nearing his 34th birthday, and ony then will he grow a tad complacent. Heck, he may even contemplate marriage, though his focus will stay on winning major championships, his argument being: “Jack may be 69 years old, but gosh, the equipment is so good, and all those replacement surgeries have him playing like he was 59 again. I think he’s got one or two majors in him, so I need to open up some more space.”
Jim McCabe is a frequent contributor to NBCSports.com and covers golf for the Boston Globe.
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