DORAL, Fla. — At his peak, Tiger Woods was the greatest golfer ever. He owns scoring records and margin-of-victory marks in major championships that outshine anyone. But each year, it’s becoming clearer that Jack Nicklaus — who managed his game, his body and his life with estimable if somewhat boring maturity — had the greatest total career.
And Woods, who has had trouble in all those areas for the last six years, and is fighting injury once again, now looks very unlikely to equal him.
Perhaps these simple numbers explain why, though he’s now 74, Nicklaus has “caught” Woods in recent years and may soon “pass” him. Sometimes, it’s easy to miss the obvious. Here’s “the elephant.”
From the age of 32 to 37, Nicklaus played in 24 major championships and had five wins, five seconds and five thirds. That’s 15 top three finishes.
In the last six seasons, from 32 to 37, Woods has played in 20 majors, missed four because of injuries and had one first, one second and one third.
Is that stark enough?
At 38, Woods’ age now, Nicklaus had almost as many top three finishes in majors (36) as Tiger has had top-10 finishes in majors (38) in his career.
Nicklaus wore down even the best of his rivals with his relentlessness, a kind of sublime stubbornness. Sometimes, the Bear mauled, but even when he was off his game, he always lurked. If he had to be runner-up in 19 major championships to end up winning 18 of them, then so be it.
But who knew, almost three decades after his last victory, that Jack would be grinding down the toughest rival of his career right now?
When Nicklaus was in his mid-30s, I began covering golf for The Washington Post. The contrast between Jack then and Tiger now is extreme.
Nicklaus was still in his physical and golfing prime as he approached 40. He played a limited schedule to keep his body from breaking down. By spending time with his wife and five children, he stayed mentally sharp for majors. Chi Chi Rodriguez called him “a legend in his spare time.”
Nicklaus had few physical issues — because he focused on preventing them. He lost 30 pounds from his Ohio Fats days to take pressure off his back that sometimes tweaked him. As a result, Nicklaus never missed a major championship for which he was eligible to play until he was 58. (The same applied to Arnold Palmer until he was 65 years old.)
In just the past six years, Woods has missed four majors, a full year’s worth, because of injuries. In two other majors when coming back after injuries, he played badly — with a missed cut and a 13-over-par disaster (his worst score as a pro). In yet another major, the 2011 Masters, he suffered a major knee injury taking a vicious recovery-shot hack off pine needles.
Tiger’s private life has received probably many times the attention and criticism that’s merited for an expensive divorce. That has distracted us from Woods’s worst problem, which began 19 months before he ever hit a fire hydrant. Since April 2008, when he had knee surgery that was more serious than was reported at the time, Woods has had six injuries to his knee, back and elbow that all made him miss tournaments, including those majors. Who knows how often Woods simply hides his pain?
Time after time, Woods is forced to decide how badly he is injured and whether he can, or should, play through pain. Now, it’s happening again.
Pro golfers, especially stars, despise withdrawing from events, especially in mid-round. In a sport with no blocks, tackles or 95-mph fastballs, this is one of the few times when physical toughness is demanded. Woods buys into this code totally. Remember, this man won a U.S. Open limping and cringing for 91 holes with a blown knee and fractured leg.
On Sunday, Woods walked off the course with just five holes to play — meaning he felt he couldn’t make it 90 more minutes. Given the pain threshold he’s established, imagine how bad he must have felt. Yet on Wednesday, three days later, he announced he’d play this week at Doral. Wise? Foolish? Or is this just Woods’ reality now?
To win another major, his game has to be sharp. His “B-game” no longer cuts it. But if he doesn’t play, how can he peak in Augusta in a month? He has never won a Masters without an early-season victory. So, golf becomes Russian Roulette.
Right now, Woods has the same number of major titles at age 38 as Nicklaus: 14. But at 38 to 40, Jack won three more. Will Woods keep pace? For that matter, will he ever win another?
Woods is now living out career decisions that he made as a young man about how to approach golf — admirable ones, but dangerous, too.
Woods wanted to beat Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles so fanatically that he made himself a golf guinea pig. He ran miles in heavy boots, lifted weights and worked out in the spirit of his father the Green Beret. Countless elite athletes have done the same, but Woods is the first elite golfer to do so.
Can you train like an NFL back or Olympic runner, yet avoid the injuries in your 30s common to such athletes? Can you hit 350-yard drives for years with a swing that deliberately snaps every endurable amount of force onto your firm left knee and still have much knee left by 35?
Woods has fought back from 58th in the world to No. 1 again, though that rank could, in theory, slip away this week. That climb had its price, too. Jack never had to battle to redeem a reputation. A year ago, when Woods got back to No. 1, Nike’s ad crowed: “Winning takes care of everything.”
Nicklaus spent his 30s pacing himself. He had watched Palmer fail to win a major after 34. Tom Watson never won a major after 33. Sometimes it’s the putting, the willpower, the joints or just the good luck that disappears. After watching his past six years, will Woods really win five more majors? Isn’t it roughly as likely — remote but plausible — he won’t win another?
Perhaps we should have suspected that Nicklaus’ edge on Woods would turn out to be course management — or call it career and life management.
Woods’ furious drive and athleticism made him the best and most thrilling of all golfers at his peak. But that same ambition and flare, that desire to push beyond limits and burn brightest, is also part of why Tiger likely won’t pass Nicklaus in the lifetime quest he set for himself as a child.