Why We Shouldn’t Write Off Tiger Woods

Joe Posnanski — one of my favorite storytellers, much less sports writers — reacted to Tiger Woods' T23 at the Open Championship by openly questioning if the Tiger Woods Era is done. Sure, reasonable question.

When they aired The Hills finale, I openly wondered if Lauren Conrad might finally exit pop culture despite having a whole other show. (Or so I'm told.) Seems more apt, though, to compare Woods' career to that of Betty White rather than the fleeting fame of Justin Bieber, or the vuvuzela.

Woods has dominated the sport for nearly as long as any golfer in the history of the sport. Nicklaus won his first major in 1962 and took his last some 24 years later. Realistically, though, Nicklaus' dominion over the major championships had three chapters.

From '62 to '75, Nicklaus nabbed all but four of his majors. Only one lengthy drought plagued his tally in the period — the Golden Bear couldn't win a major from the '67 U.S. Open until the 1970 Open Championship, which was conveniently at St. Andrews. Were it not for Doug Sanders' rather unfortunate range with the putter, Nicklaus (in a total time vacuum, which Stephen Hawking would tell you does not exist) wouldn't have ended the 0-fer until the '71 PGA Championship at PGA National. Those 30" would have tacked on another four majors to Nicklaus' longest dry spell.

Instead, Nicklaus got back on track and only failed to win a major in one year of the first half of the 70s. It was his second major win of 1975 at the PGA Championship that Nicklaus stalled again. It was won at Firestone, where Tiger Woods absolutely murders the field on an annual basis in the World Golf Championships.

Ten majors later, Nicklaus again won at St. Andrews in 1978 to start a final tour through the Grand Slam that miraculously was capped in the '86 Masters. Leaving aside the outlier of that magical Sunday charge at Augusta, Jack stopped really winning majors in 1980. He was 40 then.

Woods turns 35 in December. Daring to make the comparison that Woods is like Nicklaus — and he is in more personal ways than you know — Woods has five full seasons of majors left after this season. He has 20 cracks to tie or surpass Nicklaus. Five more shots at Augusta. (Win two and he catches Jack.) Five more shots at the two Opens. And, yes, five more PGAs.

The National Open is at Congressional next year — site of his own tournament. Three of the next four are utter unknowns for Woods, though. He was terrible at Olympic Club in '98, where the Open will be contested in 2012. Then again, from USGA chatter, it may be completely different than what the field saw then. A trip to Merion — the first in over three decades — could be a bomber's paradise. Chambers Bay in 2015 is an absolute guess. The only "sure bet" there may be on Woods and a course is Pinehurst No. 2 in '14, where Michael Campbell became the ultimate fluke major winner in 2005.

The British Open has two favorable Woods venues. The Home of Golf gets its five-year appetite fed in '15. The year prior, Royal Liverpool — where Woods played executive course golf to win four years ago. Next year, a return to where Ben Curtis shocked the world at Royal St. George's, but Tiger did finish fourth there in '03. Lytham in 2012 is where David Duval got his major in 2002, but frankly Woods was still hungover from his personal slam. Muirfield in 2013 is anyone's guess.

Let's just disregard the final major of 2010. Woods does not seem to buy into Pete Dye's Whistling Straits. In fact, Woods may only be good for one of the next five PGA Championships. We can shoot down Kohler again in 2015. Then there's a Woods Divorcee's Row of Atlanta Athletic Club, Kiawah Island — wind? pass — and Oak Hill. Only Valhalla looks good in '14, primarily because Bob May could not get lucky enough for three holes.

That leaves Woods on the cusp of Jack's record. Four combined favorable Opens, Augusta is always a threat (especially with the roars back), and a PGA or two. He has 11 realistic chances — barring some kind of massive swing, game, or life overhaul — to beat Jack. Five times in 13 tries. Certainly aggressive, but not impossible.

The prism of today is that Woods' game is in such disarray — particularly his putting — that it would be inconceivable for Woods to win like he does. As Posnanski says, Woods got to 14 by embracing the image of invincibility. Woods will have to change. Unlike Nicklaus, who became more of a course manager over time, Woods will have to become more aggressive. He can no longer sit back and wait for the field to fold. Frankly, he must act less like his sage golfing self and more like his reckless married self (on course only) if he wants to have the technical capacity to catch Jack in these next five years.

Now the age argument. Woods is getting older, not younger. He could get hurt more often. Then again, if you believe his medical assessment, he has been hurting for a decade.

Players start to win less after 32 or so. We could always cite the first time winner's list on Tour this season as evidence that the game could be passing Woods by and quickly. The same thing happened in '02 — Woods won two majors that year — and then the old guys struck back in '03. The British Open alone has produced old guy heroes in the last three years. Two came truly close to winning.

There are legendary examples of players winning and contending in majors long after their suspected shelf life. Ben Hogan, for one. Woods has used that comparison himself, though Woods was involved in a completely different car wreck. Sam Snead won two Masters from 40 and beyond. Hell, Julius Boros won two majors after 40, including a U.S. Open. A U.S. Open for crying out loud!

2010 is officially a throwaway for Tiger Woods. The year that could have been the greatest in major championship history turned into one of the great letdowns in the sport's memory. Instead of Woods, Woods, Woods, and Woods — like George Foreman's family — there has been Mickelson, McDowell, and Oosthuizen - like a law firm. Still, it is hard to write off Woods completely.

The magnitude of the letdown has critics and former worshipers of Woods wondering if Moses (Jack Nicklaus) is ready to come off of the mountain and demand that the world stop bowing to the Golden Calf. Perhaps the old man's record is safe. Maybe the rain out at the Champions Challenge was some sign that without Nicklaus, such a contest would be incomplete.

It's hard to say, though. Like a smart accountant will tell you, though, never write off anything for which you do not have a receipt. And it is not time to donate Woods' career to Goodwill.

Comments and Conversation

August 13, 2011

Rich:

Interesting read a year after you wrote it. Tiger seems miles away from catching Jack now!

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