It seems like a lot longer than five years since Tiger Woods’ improbable U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines. Hobbling on an injured left knee, Woods dramatically defeated Rocco Mediate on the first extra hole following an 18-hole Monday playoff. That was arguably the greatest of Woods’ 14 majors.
The man who was once the reigning champion in all four majors and changed the game to the point where they had to “Tiger-proof” golf courses, was at the height of his powers that day. The revelation that Woods had won on a knee that would need reconstructive surgery only perpetuated the legend of Woods.
Further, it was assumed then that Woods, at 32, was primed to easily shoot past Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major victories. After all, the knee would be repaired and he didn’t even need a healthy knee to win. So the question wasn’t if he’d pass Jack, but when.
My, how things have changed.
Of course, Woods hasn’t seen a major victory since that day at Torrey Pines. His life has become marred by both personal and professional turmoil. There was of course, the lurid sex scandal connecting him to numerous mistresses that became public after a bizarre Thanksgiving evening 2009 car accident. Woods would ultimately divorce his wife Elin, attend rehab for undisclosed reasons and publicly apologize for his embarrassing escapades.
There have also been swing changes, a change of swing coach, a somewhat high profile and less than cordial change of caddy and more health problems.
Now, 37 years old, Woods has one more major — next month’s PGA Championship — before turning 38. What was once considered something a sure thing — Woods passing Nicklaus — has become increasingly unlikely. Yes, Woods is in a battle against Father Time, and history indicates his chances are bleak.
To start, Woods needs five more major victories to pass Nicklaus. Understand, five major victories alone is a Hall of Fame career. Only 19 men in the game’s history have won five or more in their entire career. Woods, for example, would need to have the career of Phil Mickelson or Seve Ballesteros, starting now. Even tying Nicklaus would only mean that Woods had the career of Ernie Els, a likely Hall of Fame player.
Only two, Ben Hogan (five) has won the requisite number of majors for Woods to pass Nicklaus after turning 37. As for players who have won exactly four majors after turning 37, there are three: Sam Snead, Tom Morris, Sr. and Nicklaus. Morris’ records are probably irrelevant anyway seeing as he won British Opens in the 1860s.
Of those mentioned above, Hogan is the most interesting study. The Texan endured a horrific crash at the age of 36, in 1949. Colliding head on with a greyhound bus, Hogan suffered numerous fractures and battled circulation problems for the remainder of his life. Still, he came back to win six majors after the crash. Hogan, the greatest player of his day, certainly gives hope to Woods’ prospects. However, Hogan only had to overcome physical setbacks. Woods is clearly dealing with more turmoil in vastly different times.
This is where things become harder to quantify.
While great golfers have endured and battled through physical ailments, no golfer has ever endured more scrutiny than Woods. The emotional drain this has taken on Woods, who has been a public figure basically his entire life, is difficult to say. Morris, Snead, Hogan and Nicklaus undoubtedly lived lives devoid of such scrutiny.
The counter argument, of course, has already been made. We are talking about Tiger Woods. This is the man who won a U.S. Open on a broken knee, was the reigning champion in all four majors and dominated to the point we began “Tiger-proofing,” golf courses. Plus, his legendary competitiveness makes him someone that makes one hesitant to bet against.
Still, you have to think the odds are stacked against him. While golf is a sport about conquering mental demons, and we’ve seen physical hurdles navigated before, the totality of Woods’ issues have no precedent. To pass Nicklaus, he needs to right the issues with his swing, overcome numerous health ailments, exorcise personal demons and regain his self-confidence, all while having the career, starting now, of Ballesteros and Mickelson.
Sure, the run at Nicklaus may happen, but it’s going to take an effort we’ve likely never seen, even from Woods.