Tiger Woods can win a golf tournament this week in Bethesda, but it won’t be a major. He can pass Jack Nicklaus, but not for the mark about which he has obsessed for two decades. The AT&T National is his event, benefiting his foundation, and in that way it is of utmost importance to him. But he arrives at Congressional Country Club for his first Washington-area appearance in three years unable to shake the constants in his career: What went wrong at the last major, and how will he prepare for the next?
“I think that the majors certainly have more importance, and we put so much more on it, especially now,” Woods said. “I think that with the media and the way it’s been, I think that there’s so much more media coverage and more attention on major championships. Certainly that’s something that wasn’t exactly [the same] in Jack’s day, and obviously prior to him.”
Woods’s last major: a slip-up on the weekend in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, falling from a tie for first at the midway point to a tie for 21st when it ended June 17. His next one: the British Open next month at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, his first appearance there in 11 years.
But for this week, Woods must make the here and now seem as important, and there are some interesting twists. Woods’s next victory on the PGA Tour will be his 74th. Nicklaus won 73, and for a quarter century has stood second behind only Sam Snead’s 82. Snead, who died a decade ago, won his final tournament at age 52. And yet when it comes to Woods, the only number that seems to matter is Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles — four more than Woods has now. Who talks of Slammin’ Sammy?
“At the time when [Snead] passed, people didn’t appreciate it, what he had done,” Woods said. “On top of that, who he did it against. You compete against [Ben] Hogan and [Byron] Nelson your entire career, those are two tough guys to beat, and he did it.”
Now, on weeks like this against fields not worthy of a major, Woods has the opportunity to move closer to another legend.
“Tiger’s what, 36?” said Fairfax native Steve Marino, still in search of his first victory. “He’s going to get that done probably by the time he’s 40. That’s pretty incredible, especially with the depth of the fields and everything these days.”
Woods’s presence reshapes the feel of a field. His appearances in non-majors such as these are selected carefully, with preparation for majors always in mind. He acknowledges he is not someone who could play 35 tournaments a year.
A trimmer schedule — Woods has never played more than 21 PGA Tour events in a single season — has actually helped him tie Nicklaus and approach Snead. And even with his prolonged drought, when he went from the 2009 Australian Masters through the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational without winning a full-field event, his conversion rate is stunning. Entering this week, Woods has 284 starts on the PGA Tour. With the 73 victories, he still wins better than once every four times he tees it up.
“It is staggering, but I think he put in probably more work than anybody else, and he had such a singular vision for himself,” said Hunter Mahan, the 10th-ranked player in the world who joins Woods as a two-time winner on tour this year. “He’s been doing it since he was a year old. This has been in his DNA, to make it for a long time. This is what he’s chosen to do, and when you make that commitment to yourself, it’s amazing what you can do.”
That, though, is part of what makes events like this week so interesting. Woods’s commitment, consistently through his career, has been to practicing more than playing, and gearing it all toward the majors. Woods will play this week here and next week at the Greenbrier Classic in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., just the fourth time since the start of 2011 in which he will appear in back-to-back events.
“I’ve always enjoyed practicing, and practicing my way into a tournament,” Woods said. “Some guys like to play their way into shape, and play [tournaments]. They don’t really practice a lot. I’m one of those guys that just really enjoys practicing.”
Yet since his performance at Olympic — just the second time in 10 chances at majors in which he owned at least a share of the lead after 36 holes, but didn’t win — he said he has largely put the clubs down to spend time with his kids. “I got away from the game,” he said.
Woods’s daughter Sam turned 6 last week, and her younger brother Charlie is 3. Since his divorce in the summer of 2010, he has made it clear that on the weeks he has custody of his children, golf would fall to a distant second.
But as he teed off Tuesday afternoon at Congressional for a nine-hole practice round with buddy Arjun Atwal, golf was again at the forefront. This week, he can’t get closer to Nicklaus in the way he really wants, but he could surpass him in a way that is almost as impressive.