There is no doubt in my mind that, for better or probably for worse, Tiger Woods is back. Jack Nicklaus’ major record is again seriously threatened.
Forgive in advance the first-person nature of this post that is not about me but about Woods, but the frame of reference might be important in assessing this judgment. Anyway…..
I have always said and written that I am neither a Woods fan nor a Woods hater: I admire some of the work he does with children and admire his evident and sincere respect for personnel in the American armed forces, but on the other hand I have always found him cold and insufficiently gracious and usually find myself rooting against him, and never have actually rooted for him except in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. I find it incredibly frustrating that his competition through the years has performed like relative pygmies, folding like not just cheap suits but like threadbare suits thrown into a heap in the corner of a college bachelor pad. Unless I missed one somewhere, NEVER has somebody running even with or behind Woods on the final few holes made birdies to beat him; the only two who have even hit great shots to hold him off from a position in front of him were Hal Sutton at the Players one year and Y.E. Yang in the PGA when Tiger himself was stumbling a little. Aside from that, the only two others even to hang really tough with Woods in a major rather than hiccuping badly were journeymen: Bob May at a PGA and Chris DiMarco at a Masters, both of whom of course lost to him anyway.
Compare that to the Nicklaus’ record of repeatedly having people step up and beat him with great putts and chip-ins: Trevino did it, Watson did it, both multiple times. Compare that to Nicklaus beating all-time greats or near-greats so many times: Palmer second to him four or five times in majors, Miller, Weiskopf, Bruce Crampton, Ballesteros, Norman, Kite, all finishing second to him in tight races. The best players of Tiger’s era, though, haven’t really challenged him, with Mickelson second to him only once in a major, Duval second to him only once, and only Ernie Els a serious challenger multiple times when Woods was at his best. Also compare Nicklaus’ 19 second-place finishes in majors to Woods’…. what, is it now just six, or 7, seconds?
Finally, compare what happened when Nicklaus was in relative slumps: Other greats stepped up and won multiple majors: Trevino, Player, and others. When Woods was in his two extended slumps, almost nobody stepped up to fill the void. Vijay Singh won one major and lots of other tourneys early last decade (and two earlier majors), but didn’t make major runs (like Trevino did to Nicklaus) when Woods was transitioning to Hank Haney’s teaching. And now, in the four years since Wood’s last major (or actually starting several majors before that), I think the stat is now that 19 different people have won the past 19 majors. Even in his absence, nobody steps up. His fiercest rivals have four (Mickelson), three (Els and Singh and Harrington) majors, while letting folks like Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem, Ben Curtis, and Shaun Micheel take home majors; compared to Nicklaus vying with Palmer (seven), Player (nine), Watson (8), Trevino (6), and Floyd (4).
In other words, I think there are many ways in which Woods has had it easy, in terms of competition. I think I won’t ever root for him until I actually see people step up and beat him, pass him, in the clutch in a couple of majors and see how gracefully Woods deals with it.
All of which is prelude to this: When watching the final round of the Memorial yesterday, I could tell rather quickly that there was something familiar about this Woods, something we got used to seeing from 1997 through 2008, and something that has been missing ever since Woods drove into a fire hydrant: His force field seemed to be back. When very hot playing competitor Rickie Fowler started imploding (he ended up shooting 84!!!!) very quickly, that was a sign that the “choke when around Woods” phenomenon was back.
Even halfway through the round, though, I thought somebody else might win yesterday, but already had planned to write a blog about how Woods — with his new, ugly, but repeatable swing (first on the tour, and at the Memorial, in fairways hit!)– would win the coming US Open, and win it big.
But nobody else really stepped up to the plate. When Rory Sabbatini, finally with the lead, promptly hit a godawful 5-wood to badly miss the par-5 15th green, it was all so familiar. And, as Woods looked over a really tough chip from behind the 16th green and an announcer said he would be lucky to get it within even six feet of the hole, …
…I was pretty sure what was coming. “Oh, sh**,” I said aloud, to the empty room. I got off the sofa, moved right up next to the TV so I could see better (there was glare in the room), and said to myself: “Six feet, hell, dammit, he’s gonna make it.” I just knew it from his body language. It looked like his old self, like he looked in chipping in on 16 to beat DiMarco, like he looked in chipping in on the 14th at the Memorial a number of years ago, like he looked as his lined up a 50 footer on 17 at the TPC-Sawgrass (“better than most, better than most…. better than most!”) — and he looked just like Tom Watson looked on the 71st hole at Pebble in 1982.
There was almost no doubt in my mind, even as Woods’ club was making contact with the ball, that it would do anything other than go in. Nor did I have any doubts that Sabbatini would do anything other than make bogeys coming in.
Woods hits amazing shots — all the credit in the world to him — and others splutter like choking dogs.
Again I say, with apologies to Mickelson and Els and Singh, that Woods is playing in an age of relative pygmies. Mickelson is today’s equivalent of Billy Casper, not of Arnie or Player. Els is today’s equivalent of, maybe, Ray Floyd, not of Watson or Trevino. Okay, Singh is overall more accomplished as a regular player (ignoring a senior tour career he obviously hasn’t had yet) than Hale Irwin or Johnny Miller, but not by much — and he is no Seve Ballesteros. But where are the Hubert Greens, the Weiskopfs, the Kites, the Crenshaws, or even the Dick Stocktons, of Woods’ era? Hell, the last three World Number Ones have zero (Luke Donald), zero (Lee Westwood) and one (Rory McIlroy) major title between them, and McIlroy is prone to horrible stretches like his current three consecutive missed cuts.
All of which explains why Woods, with his mojo back, might have nobody really able to stand in his way as he pursues Nicklaus’ record of professional major titles.
Or does anyone really think Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson or Keegan Bradley has the makings of another Tom Watson?
Methinks not. And methinks the great Jack Nicklaus eventually will be forced to hand his crown to a growling, fist-pumping Woods, who will accept Jack’s gracious handshake with some less-than-dignified line, such as what he said to Nicklaus yesterday: “Thanks, buddy.”
Golf deserves better.