As Woods has gone through his major drought — there have been 18 such events since he won his 14th and most recent, the 2008 U.S. Open — others have filled the void. Rory McIlroy was just 18 when Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win that Open, and Woods was still an idol. Now, he is a peer. But even as McIlroy has won two majors and risen, for a time, to be No. 1 in the world, there is another acknowledgement that Woods’s spot in the golf hierarchy has been restored: His foes revere his record, and no one rushes to embrace him as a rival.
“He’s got 77 PGA Tour events [that he’s won]; I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors; I’ve got two,” McIlroy said. “If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
There is one character in the game, though, who can sit back and assess Woods from afar, and have his word still carry weight. For years, Woods’s presence here brought comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, the owner of a record six Masters championships, of a record 18 majors. When Nicklaus was 37, he had won 14 of those titles — precisely the number at which Woods sits now.
“I’ve said it before: I expect him to break my record,” Nicklaus reiterated Tuesday. “I think he’s just too talented, and too driven and too focused.”
Nicklaus pointed out that, after he won three Masters from 1963 to ’66, he went five years without a green jacket before winning again in 1972. With the personal strife behind him, with his health restored, this lull shouldn’t prevent Woods from making a run.
“I don’t think it’s any big deal,” Nicklaus said. “I’m sure he does.”
Perhaps the strongest indication that Woods is still his old self — pursuit of balance and equilibrium put aside — is that he professed Tuesday to have the same desire to beat Nicklaus’s record as he did when he won his first major, back in 1997, when he was 21.
“I would like to be able to get to that point,” he said. “It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there’s plenty of opportunities for me.”
The next one begins Thursday. As he hit balls on the range Tuesday, joking with Fred Couples and chatting with Jason Dufner, his place in the game seemed restored. “I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” he said. And maybe, just maybe, his life as well.