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Imagine that: A return to golf fantasyland

Tiger Woods is the gift who keeps on giving.

He gave modern golf the gift of history. While Tiger was making history, what with those first 14 major championship and the unthinkable achievement of holding all four major titles at once, he also was chasing history. The target was Jack Nicklaus and 18 professional majors – 20, if you’re a traditionalist counting the two U.S. Amateurs that Jack won.

Pardon my familiarity, but I’ll refer to them as Tiger and Jack for the rest of this story. We’ve been on a first-name basis with these gents for years. They span more than six decades of the game. Golf has only one Jack. I don’t think Fleck, Newton, Renner, Cupit, Grout, Tuthill and the rest will mind. And Tiger is a first-name celebrity on or off the sports page, on the order of Elvis, Beyonce or Cleopatra.

So, we celebrate the Resurrection of Tiger at the Masters Tournament as a second chance to embrace golf history. It’s a once twice-in-a-lifetime chance to debate what comes next and who is the Greatest of All Time, Jack or Tiger.

Let me remind you how lucky we are that Tiger came along in the late ’90s. During the early ’90s, I wrote more than one story about golf’s lack of a dominant player and how the PGA Tour players of that time were absolutely dead-solid sure that no one ever would dominate golf again the way Jack did. “Where’s the next King of Golf?” is a headline I remember from one of my magazine pieces.

The answer wasn’t Hal Sutton, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo or Greg Norman.

We got our answer by the middle of 2000. Tiger won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots, the first of four straight major titles that he would capture.

The fact that he’d grown up with a chart of Jack’s achievements on his bedroom wall was a tasty tidbit mentioned at least once by every media person who covered Tiger. The Race to 18 Majors was on, ready or not, fueled by Jack’s quip that Tiger would win as many Masters as himself and Arnold Palmer combined: 10. That seemed like an outlandish statement at first, but then Tiger won two of his first four Masters as a pro. Tiger’s latest victory means he is halfway to Jack’s prediction and maybe not done yet.

Until Tiger, Jack’s total of 18 professional majors was a quaint but brief conversation piece. It was a Mona Lisa hanging next to Dogs Playing Poker paintings. It was in a field by itself.

Nobody else actually chased Jack’s record. As great as Tom Watson was, and he was a contemporary later in Jack’s career, Watson won only eight. And that word “only” should be used to describe Watson’s total only in relation to Jack.

Arnold Palmer, Jack’s greatest rival, won seven pro majors. Walter Hagen captured 11 major titles, and Ben Hogan earned nine. They came before Jack, however. Only Gary Player, another Jack rival, won as many as nine.

Modern careers are much more modest. Lee Trevino and Faldo have six professional majors; Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson own five apiece.

Without Tiger, there is no such thing as Chasing Jack. There is no debate about greatness. Without Tiger, we’ve got Mickelson, who turns 49 in June, at five among current players who still have a reasonable chance at winning more majors; Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els at four; and Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth at three.

Woods seems to be out of reach at 15 majors. So does Hagen at 11. It will take a Herculean effort by any of today’s young guns to get within sniffing distance of Player and Hogan at nine.

It is Tiger and only Tiger who gives us a chance to get immersed in such wonderful big-picture golf lore.

For instance, I’ve done deep research into the relevant “what if” questions regarding major-championship golf. Nicklaus won 18 majors but also had 19 runners-up and nine third-place finishes. When I looked at his record with a very conservative eye toward the coulda-shoulda-woulda category, I estimated that Nicklaus possibly should have won another 10 majors, for a total of 28.

When I asked the late golf writer Dan Jenkins, who was a very serious golf historian despite his irreverent exterior, he responded with this number: 35.

I later took the same approach to Tiger’s career. I figured he could have won nine more majors but perhaps should have won seven more. Please note that there’s a big difference between could have and should have.

So, here’s your major-championship scoreboard update from fantasyland: Jack 28, Tiger 21.

Include the U.S. Amateur and it’s Jack 30, Tiger 24.

Include the U.S. Junior Amateur (hey, it’s a national championship, too) and it’s Jack 30, Tiger 27, but I don’t think anyone will buy into that.

I gave Mickelson’s career a hard look, too. You can make a case that he could have 14 major titles, or at least 12. In my fantasyland scenario, he’s barely halfway to Jack and Tiger.

The race for golf’s most important record is still on. Tiger is back in the game, and he already has won major titles at the sites of the next two majors: the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

I’m not going to make any predictions on whether Tiger 3.0 is capable of catching Jack. But for the chance to reanimate this big debate, I’ll say this: Thanks, Tiger.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle