AUGUSTA, Ga. — The next question is obvious and inevitable, and it’s only natural to feel differently about it than you did, say, Saturday evening: Can Tiger Woods catch and surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record for major championships?
That question had become tired and trite. While Woods was wandering the athletic wilderness for the better part of a decade, winning the four additional majors it would take to tie Nicklaus’s record of 18, the five it would take to surpass him, seemed unfair to ask of someone whose most significant accomplishment on a given day was getting out of bed.
Now, though, he needs just three to tie Nicklaus. Now, after Woods’s 15th major victory at Sunday’s Masters, he needs just four to pass him.
“I don’t know if he’s worried or not,” Woods said Sunday evening.
He shouldn’t be, right?
Still, you’re saying there’s a chance?
Let’s look at this from two angles: venues (not that important) and age (very important).
Because of golf’s new schedule, the next major is the PGA Championship, held next month at Bethpage Black, just outside New York. The major after that: the U.S. Open, which this June happens to be at — well, now, lookie here — Pebble Beach.
Bethpage has staged two Opens: 2002, when Woods won, and 2009, when he finished tied for sixth in a swampy affair that didn’t finish until Tuesday. Woods has played in two U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach: His unforgettable 15-shot — 15 shots! — win in 2000, and a less-remembered tie for fourth with Phil Mickelson, three shots behind victorious Graeme McDowell, in 2010.
So there’s some easy math: Tiger has won at both Bethpage and Pebble Beach. Given how he just played this past weekend, why couldn’t he do it again? It’s just so darn tantalizing.
Ah, but age. Age.
The Woods who drummed the field at Pebble Beach was 24, more flexible and athletic than anyone else in the tournament. The Woods who won at Bethpage was 26, still nearly two years away from overhauling his swing a second time.
That Woods was in his prime. This Woods couldn’t even swing a golf club two years ago. Four back surgeries will do that to a guy.
Before last summer, it was ridiculous to even consider any of this. Woods turned 40 at the end of 2015, right in the middle of what seemed to be the complete deterioration of his body and his career. From 2014 through 2017, there were 16 majors. Woods sat out 10 of them and missed the cut in four others. The times he played on the weekend: Twice, finishing 69th at the 2014 British Open and tied for 17th at the Masters the following spring.
That’s not a guy who could push Jack. That’s a guy whose career is, basically, over.
Except now it’s not. At last Tuesday’s champions’ dinner at Augusta National, Gary Player, who joins Woods and Nicklaus as one of just five players to win nine majors, spoke to Woods about his pursuit.
“I’m not finished yet,” Player said Woods told him.
“That’s encouraging,” Player said, and in the next breath: “Can he win five majors to beat Jack? I don’t think so.”
Now the necessary number is four. Four is the entire career of Ernie Els and both Tom Morrises, Old and Young. Four is the entire career of Raymond Floyd and one more than Tommy Armour and Billy Casper, Vijay Singh and Payne Stewart. Four is a lot.
Woods is not the oldest player to win a Masters. That title, of course, belongs to Nicklaus, whose 1986 victory at age 46 was, before Sunday, the obvious choice as Augusta’s most sentimental moment.
That victory for Nicklaus was, in fact, an outlier in his career. It was the only major he won after turning 41. Woods’s victory at Augusta is an even more extreme outlier at the moment. It’s his only major after turning 33 — still difficult to fathom given where Woods was in his career at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Woods’s physical rebuilding — don’t forget the surgeries on his busted leg, on which he won that 2008 Open — is the basis for anyone who has belief he can do this. At 43, he hasn’t lost his ability to drive it with the big boys. Not past Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy and Tony Finau. But competitive with them. And he says he’s getting better, not worse.
“I ramped up the speed,” Woods said Sunday. “I’m starting to have a little pop in the bat out there.”
By winning the Masters at 43 years, three months and 16 days old, Woods didn’t even crack the list of top 10 oldest major winners. (If he wins at any point later this year, he’ll bump out Ted Ray’s victory at the 1920 U.S. Open for 10th.) Many multiple major champions put a nice bow on their careers by taking one late in life: Floyd at the 1986 U.S. Open at 43, Harry Vardon’s seventh at the 1914 British Open at 44, Lee Trevino’s seventh at the 1984 PGA at 45.
The players currently on tour believe they should have an advantage
“There’s no reason, now, with the knowledge we have in fitness, the knowledge we have in biomechanics and the knowledge we have with nutrition and so forth,” Mickelson said, “that we, at a much older age than in the past, should be able to perform at a very high level.”
And he left out perhaps the most important element: equipment.
Either way, Mickelson should know. He won the most recent of his five majors (the 2013 British Open) a month after turning 43. And he expects to contend in more.
The reality is, though, it gets harder. In Mickelson’s 21 majors since that title, he has just three top-10 finishes.
To pass Nicklaus, Woods doesn’t need a one-off. He needs a four-off. And no player has won more than one major beyond age 43.
“I really haven’t thought about that yet,” Woods said Sunday night, wearing that fifth green jacket.
Good. Leave that to us. We can chew on the numbers that say it’s unlikely — decidedly so. But then we can rewind the DVR and watch Sunday’s final round one more time. Tiger catching Jack? It’s nice for it to be appropriate to wonder again.