Tiger Woods looks like his turn-of-the-century world-beater self, putting Jack Nicklaus’ majors mark in play
You heard it here first: Nineteen is now in play.
That sounds suspiciously like hyperbole. Maybe it is. On the other hand, every golf writer has been guilty as charged of that crime at some moment during the past 25 years of recurring tsunami waves of TigerMania. So I’ll skip my apology.
What I saw last weekend was wonderfully shocking. Tiger Woods won the Zozo Championship in Japan, and it might turn out to be the most important victory of his oh-so-important career.
Yes, he scored Victory No. 82 and forced Slammin’ Sam Snead to move over in the record books. Woods finally tied the number that the PGA Tour settled on as Snead’s official victory total, sort of a moving target that the Tour changed twice in the past three decades.
The real significance of Woods’ latest W, as he likes to call a win, is what it means to golf’s future. He played golf like Tiger Woods again. I didn’t feel that way when he won last year’s Tour Championship in Atlanta, and I certainly didn’t feel that way when he won the Masters in April. The latter had the sense of one last curtain-dropping encore, like Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters.
Woods proved last April in stunning fashion that he still could win a major, the toughest major of them all (even if he had some help from those guys who fell off the leaderboard), and now he could ride off, satisfied, into the sunset after a grand finale to rival any fireworks show.
Japan changed all that. Did you see the way that Woods played? He kept his tee ball in play, hit iron shots close, poured in putts as if he were back at Valhalla in 2000. He looked like – let’s all take a deep breath here – maybe the best player in the world. Again.
After Victory No. 82, I’m impressed and convinced. I believe that Woods can catch Nicklaus and his iconic record of 18 major championships … and maybe even pass him.
That’s why I think 19 is now is play. I never thought I’d write that sentence, especially after Woods disappeared last summer. He looked puny and ill paired with Brooks Koepka early in the PGA Championship, and his game got worse as the year went on. Something clearly was wrong. In Japan last weekend, Woods conceded that his left knee went bad and he eventually underwent surgery. But Tiger’s Summer of Nothing made a convincing case that his Masters victory was a fortuitous one-off, made-for-CBS victory.
And now I’m throwing 19 out there. It’s a reach, I know. Especially given that Woods’ 43-year-old oft-repaired body is more breakable than ever. To get to 19, Woods will have to have the career of Rory McIlroy (a four-time major winner), starting now, to get there.
But I think it’s possible, just as I think Koepka’s somewhat controversial belief that he can reach double figures in major championships is possible.
Anyway, Tiger’s Chase To Jack is back on. And because that’s the case, let’s look at this from Woods’ point of view. We always say and write that Woods is chasing 18 majors. He has won 15.
Do you think Woods spent his whole life dreaming of tying Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors? Do you think he visualized himself tying Snead’s mark of 82 wins?
No. He surely saw himself passing them. The Tiger Woods I watched play in Japan has enough game to realize those goals.
Nineteen is the real number here, not 18. That’s an important distinction.
It’s funny, but back in 2008, when Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines to get his 14th major title, nearly every golf observer assumed it was a foregone conclusion that he would blow past Nicklaus’ 18 majors like Usain Bolt running in a junior-high track meet.
I can cite several writers, including myself, who wrote stories that forecast at which future major championship Woods would get the magical No. 18.
And he surely would drop Snead’s victory mark with the easy finality of Dorothy’s house plummeting out of a tornado and ending the Wicked Witch of the East in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Woods didn’t win another major for 11 years. He went five years without winning until that 2018 Tour Championship. Injuries and life got in the way. A debilitating back problem, finally relieved by surgery, allowed him to resume playing golf and become the greatest reclamation project since Ben Hogan in that bus crash.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve lost track of what version of Tiger Woods this is. I’m calling him Tiger 5.0 after this latest knee surgery and revival. What matters is that he still can compete and win tournaments.
The trouble is that now, Woods has got to go through players such as Koepka, McIlroy, Justin Thomas and a few others to win majors. Is that really that much tougher than holding back Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie, David Duval and the rest? Discuss.
Nineteen seems like a distant island where they ought to film the next season of “Survivors.”
But maybe it’s not really that distant. Who’s going to be the favorite next April at the Masters? It has to be the defending champion, Woods. If he successfully defends, that would be No. 16.
The PGA Championship a month later will be contested at San Francisco’s Harding Park. It’s an oh-by-the-way tidbit that Woods won the 2005 WGC American Express there, beating John Daly in a playoff.
So, it’s not a stretch to make Woods the favorite at the PGA, too. If he wins, that’s No. 17.
Let’s look ahead to 2021. There’s always room for another Masters (No. 18?), and in July, the British Open will be played at the Old Course in St. Andrews, where Woods has won the Claret Jug twice.
There’s one feasible path to 19. I’m not predicting that’s how it is going to happen, or even that it will happen. I’m just saying that in the case of Tiger Woods, after what we’ve just seen in Japan and what we’re going to see at the Presidents Cup, it’s not impossible.
The man has 82 wins. He’s pretty good at his job. Doubt him at your own peril.