While fans today enjoy more events, better coverage of those varied events, and increasingly wonderful ways to consume our beloved games – HD televisions with pictures clear enough to put you courtside; hand-held devices with apps for every team and athlete; satellite radio available twenty-four hours a day – expect one story to dominate the sports landscape the next five years or so.
Tiger chasing Jack.
Not the NFL and that league’s looming battles over past cases of head trauma.
Not the college football national championship playoff, which will culminate in Dallas a couple of years hence.
Not the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that threatens to overturn the American college sport model in place for more than a century.
All those are big stories, and others will arise as the calendar pages turn, but my prediction is that the biggest and best of all will be Tiger chasing Jack.
Jack Nicklaus holds the record for most professional golf major championships with 18. Tiger Woods ranks second on the all-time list with 14.
[* For the non-golf fan, “majors” are played annually and considered the most important professional tournaments. The current majors are The Masters (played the first full week of April at Augusta National golf club), the U.S. Open (played in mid-June to finish on Father’s Day on a variety of American courses), the British Open (played the third week in July on one of nine courses in England or Scotland), and the PGA Championship (played four weeks after the British Open on a variety of American courses). The tournaments that constitute “majors” have changed over the decades – originally amateur versions of the US and British Opens counted.]
Five years ago Tiger Woods seemed a lock to eclipse Jack’s record.
When he outlasted Rocco Mediate in a terrific eighteen-hole playoff at Torrey Pines to win the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger was 32 years old and a full three years ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace (Jack won his 14th major at age 35 in 1975 – the same year Tiger was born). As he limped off the course that day, Woods had won six majors the previous four years. The question was not so much whether he would surpass Jack’s record; instead we wondered how soon he would reach the milestone and how far past it would he push his career total.
Tiger has not won a major since.
No one explanation adequately addresses his majors drought, but I remember a frequent comment from Jack Nicklaus that seemed astute every time he said it, and that holds up even better today. Each time a reporter asked if Tiger would break his record, Jack replied to the effect that “yes, I believe he’ll break my record, but let’s let him do it first … a lot of things can happen.”
Jack is a smart man.
A lot of things happened to Tiger.
First, his body broke down a bit. He has a chronic problem with his left knee and leg, having at least two surgeries on the knee and probably more. He’s also suffered a ruptured disc in his back, and injured his Achilles on the left leg. Some of those problems must be due to longevity. Tiger has been on the national stage since the age of two when he appeared on the Mike Douglas television show (and of course smashed one right down the middle). He was a prolific amateur golfer and was by far the biggest star on tour by age 21 when he won his first major (1997 Masters). That’s a lot of golf. Some of the health problems are also the result of Tiger’s style of play. Throughout his career he’s taken some of the most violent swings you’ll ever want to witness, slashing from the deep rough or pounding out of bunkers. The amount of torque he places on his back, spine, hips, and lower legs must be immense.
Emotional scars cannot be dismissed as part of Tiger’s current five-year majors gap either.
The notoriously private Woods created a well-documented media firestorm in November of 2009 when the first reports of his marital infidelities came to light. Over the next several months, Woods and his family endured searing attention and Tiger faced the public humiliation of recorded phone conversations, the loss of sponsorships, and ultimately the breakup of his marriage.
Between the physical and emotional problems Tiger faced, many fans and pundits dismissed his chances to pass Jack’s record, while everyone who followed sports recognized that the odds of him doing so had at least gone down significantly.
That mindset is probably changing as you read.
Woods has won four of the nine tournaments he’s entered this season, including a convincing victory in The Players Championship, which boasts a field comparable to or better than the majors. He will be a huge favorite heading into the U.S. Open at Merion. That’s the site where, in 1930, Bobby Jones completed golf’s only Grand Slam (at the time the U.S. Open and Amateur versions, and the British Open and Amateur). Surely, Tiger embraces the chance to reignite his pursuit of the career record at a place of such historic significance.
So … will Tiger break Jack’s record?
Yes, I think he will.
Tiger has a few things going for him.
At 37, he is still a year ahead of Jack’s pace, although the three majors Nicklaus won in his 40s will be tough to duplicate.
Physically, Tiger has always kept himself in great shape. He is a workout and nutrition fiend by all accounts, and with an emphasis on fitness that was not around during the Nicklaus heyday (unless you were Gary Player), he should have another decade or more of competitive greatness. Emotionally, Tiger also seems to be back on track. He is in a new relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, and his on course confidence, even intimidation, appears to have returned.
This point will be blasphemous to some, but in my opinion Tiger plays against easier – albeit deeper – competition. There are more good players on tour today than in the 1960s and 1970s when Jack won most of his majors. But, there aren’t nearly the caliber of champions. For example, Tiger has finished second in majors six times, losing to fellows named Beem, Yang, Campbell, Johnson, Immelman, and Cabrera (the only one of the group with multiple majors). By contrast, Nicklaus finished second in majors a whopping nineteen times, falling to such giants as Palmer, Trevino, Watson, Miller, and Ballesteros among others. So, Tiger may have to beat more good players, but there are far fewer great champions he must overcome.
Finally, and this is the deciding factor in my opinion, Tiger knows what he has to do. He has to get to 19 professional majors to break the record. Just like Roger Maris knew he had to hit 61 homers and Hank Aaron knew he had to get to 715 career homeruns (both to pass Babe Ruth), Pete Rose knew he had to get to 4192 hits to supplant Ty Cobb, and the next great sprinter knows he has to run 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds (good luck) to set a world record … Tiger knows he has to get to 19 to move beyond the Bear.
The person chasing the record always has the advantage.
I think Tiger finishes his career with 20 majors.