Sports News – On Thursday the most watched Golf tournament of the year will begin, The Masters. This is the tournament set between March Madness and the NBA playoffs, and sports fans everywhere will be glued to the screen watching the years first major.
Say what you will about Tiger Woods. Root for him. Root against him. But you have to love one thing about the man: He has never shied away from historic comparisons. So many pro athletes do. They shrug and say: “I’m just hoping to win them one at a time and not think about the record book.”
Woods has never done that, bless him. From childhood, he has wanted to win them 18 or 19 at a time. He has embraced and relished the record-book comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, who owns 18 major championships and before retiring from competition established golfing’s career gold standard at that magic number.
As a kid in Southern California, Woods famously taped a piece of paper to his bedroom wall on which he listed Nicklaus’ achievements, with the 18 majors at the top. Then little Tiger grew up and started chasing them. Still is. He’s not ashamed to admit it. At this point, he remains four short of Nicklaus.
“If I try and can’t get there, so what?” Woods told one interviewer during his media sessions at Augusta National the other day. “At least I tried.”
This week is a very crucial try.
In fact, you might label the Masters of 2013, which begins Thursday morning, as the most interesting milepost yet of Woods’ chase.
When he begins the first round at Augusta, Woods will be 37 years old and teeing it up in his 61st major as a professional. He owns 14 major titles.
In 1977 when Nicklaus showed up at Augusta, he was also 37 years old and teeing it up in his 61st major as a pro — and also owned 14 major titles.
In other words, Woods and Nicklaus at age 37 are neck and neck in their major championship “competition.” But where does that duel go from here?
For Woods, it had better lead to a victory soon. For a while, he was blowing away Nicklaus, leading to all those premature proclamations that Tiger was the best ever and would leave the Golden Bear in the dust.
By age 25, Woods had already won six major championships. By age 25, Nicklaus had won only four.
But the last seven years were excellent ones for Nicklaus. Woods won just two majors. He hasn’t claimed any since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Meanwhile, Nicklaus won five majors between the ages of 30 and 37. That enabled him to retroactively “catch” Woods.
Which brings us to the current standoff. I’ll make no bones about it. In following this competition, I have been a Nicklausite all along. Probably has something to do with my generation. In 1975, I covered my first Masters. Nicklaus won it with a Sunday surge in which he bested the era’s two best other players, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf. All three came to the 18th green with a chance to finish first. Nicklaus did.
In the press hut afterward, the old guys were calling it the best Masters ever. What did I know? I was 22 years old. But it turns out the old guys were still right, almost 40 years later. I was lucky to be there. I’ve been a Nicklaus guy ever since. I realized that someone might come along one day to beat his records. I was cool with that. I just didn’t want it to be as easy as Woods was making it look, so that young people who never saw Nicklaus would realize how good he was.
And now, thanks to the ups and downs of real life — and the golfing gods — that has exactly happened. Woods may indeed surpass Nicklaus’ mark. But it’s not going to be easy.
Nicklaus did not win his 15th major, the 1978 British Open, until he turned 38 years old. So that gives Woods a little leeway in catching up to the Golden Bear’s pace. As any follower of the sport knows, however, the Masters is the easiest major to win. Woods can’t waste too many more chances to get another one while in his prime.
The Masters carries an almost religious aura. But the fact is, the tournament field is limited and restricted — if you’re 31st on the PGA Tour money list, you might not even be invited — so there are fewer good golfers to beat. And for all of Augusta National’s beauty, the course is very friendly to errant drivers because the rough is virtually non-existent. In 2005, Woods finished 49th for the week in driving accuracy there but still won.
That was his last Masters victory, in fact. Last year, he finished in a tie for 40th. But it was obvious that health problems were still nagging him. He says he is in top shape now. His personal life also appears back on track. He has won his last two starts and owns three victories this year. If he is not in contention down the stretch Sunday, then Woods really does have issues with his mentality and approach to majors.
And if he fails to win? Then his major championship drought will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the U.S. Open in June. And he will continue to gain no ground on Nicklaus, who has often said he looks forward to his 18-major record being broken by Woods, in spite of Tiger’s five-year slump. Personally, I think this is Nicklaus’ version of trash-talking and playing mind games. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.
I just know who I’ll be watching Sunday afternoon. It won’t be Brandt Snedeker. It will be Tiger Woods and a ghost that looks like a lot like a Bear.
By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Columnist