Masters 2014: Will Tiger Woods be forever stuck on major No. 14?
It's an age-old philosopical question: If you could know the date you were going to die and how it was going to happen, would you want to?
As the Masters approaches, it seems that golf fans are wrestling with a variation of that conundrum: If you could know beyond a doubt that Tiger Woods will never claim another major -- that history will show him winning his last in what we all assumed had been the middle of his prime, at age 32, at the 2008 U.S. Open --would you want to know that?
People have predicted as much -- people like Greg Norman, who Golf Magazine interviewed in 2011. Q: Do you believe Tiger will win another major, given the state of his body, his mind and his game? A: No.
No? It seemed like a brave answer then but less so today. It's almost trendy to say Woods won't reach 19.
Tiger is stuck at 14 major wins. He'll need four more to equal Jack Nicklaus's mythic total, and five more -- keep in mind, five majors is Phil Mickelson's current career total -- to set the game's new gold standard. Impossible? You don't want to know if it's impossible, just like you don't want to know if he's incapable of winning even one more -- or when and how you'll shuffle off this mortal coil. Where's the fun in that?
Arnold Palmer, 50 years ago this month, won what turned out to be his last Masters and his last major, despite the fact that he was only 34. Endings don't always have the grace to announce themselves, to give "closure." Sure, some of them do. Jack winning the 1986 Masters at 46? That was closure with a bow on top, like the finale of "Breaking Bad." But maybe the end of the reign for Woods, as with Palmer before him, will be more like the last episode of "The Sopranos": We'll just sit there staring at nothing, wondering, "Wait -- so that's it?" Kind of like we are now.
For Woods to win the 2014 Masters he will need to hit greens -- in three of his four victories at Augusta, he's been either first or tied for first in greens in regulation. In his fourth win, in 2005, he was second. Putting? Yeah, he has to worry about that, too, because the one other time Woods led the field in greens hit, in 1999, he took 126 putts (his highest four-round total at Augusta by three) and finished T18. He has averaged 30 putts per round on the weekend the last three years.
The problem is his body. Most of the blame here goes to his left knee, which he first had surgery on as a Stanford freshman in 1994, to remove two benign tumors. Three more operations on that knee, plus pain in or injuries to his ankle and neck (2010 Players), right and left Achilles' tendons (2008, 2011), elbow and back (last year), have us wondering if Woods isn't really made out of glass.
The problem is also his mind. Tiger shot in the 60s just once in the 2013 majors, compared with 23 times in non-majors (en route to five wins). What's more, he hasn't broken 70 in 16 straight weekend rounds in those freighted events. And of the 18 majors that make up Woods's ongoing winless streak, he'd won his previous start nine times -- only to fizzle out when it mattered most.
Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Sam Snead and even Lee Trevino won at least one major when they were as old or older than Woods is today (38). Hogan won five of them after his 38th birthday, and Nicklaus was 46 when he won the 1986 Masters. Player slipped the green jacket on in 1978 at the age of 42. And it's not like Woods hasn't come close at Augusta. He always comes close: T4s in three of the last four years.
But then there's Palmer. Fifty years ago he won the Masters for a record fourth time, by six shots. At 34, he was seemingly in the prime of his career. He hit the ball a mile. He played and lived under a microscope. According to the Sports Illustrated account of the tournament, his fellow competitors "hesitated to think" what the future might hold for the dominant Palmer.
The future held 19 more Tour wins for the King, but none of them majors. He won his seven majors over a six-year span. Tom Watson was 33 when he won what turned out to be his last of eight majors -- over seven years -- at the 1983 British Open.
Bobby Jones notched his last major at age 28, after a seven-year run. Gene Sarazen won seven majors over 12 years, the last at 33. Sam Snead racked up seven majors, the last at age 41, over a span of 11 and a half years. Nick Faldo compiled six majors over nine years, his last at 38. If you take away Nicklaus, whose victory at the 1986 Masters gave him a span of nearly 24 years, you see that most legends get about 10 years, if they're lucky, on top.
Simply put, Woods has lost the driver and no longer makes enough big putts. He's in his 18th year as a pro. Maybe Tiger's time is just... up. If the 2008 U.S. Open turns out to be his last major victory, then his span of winning majors was 11 years, a bit longer than average.
Average is not a word we're used to using around Woods, but he sure looked that way early this year. He shot a third-round 79 and missed the 54-hole cut at the Farmers Insurance Open -- at Torrey Pines, of all places -- then finished 41st at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, marking the first time in his career he's finished outside the top 20 in his first two starts of a season.
So yes, maybe he is done winning majors. But think back to January, and the Associated Press preseason story, which was basically the same preseason story that ran in 2010: The major venues would set up perfectly for Woods -- he's won at Augusta, Hoylake and Valhalla and nearly won at Pinehurst -- and if he still harbored hopes of catching Jack, this had to be the year to resume the chase. It would begin, as always, at the venue that may set up for Woods best of all: Augusta National.
You might ask, How long can that story run?
Answer: Until Tiger's left leg literally falls off.
Heck, maybe this story gets pumped up with ever more potential with every passing year. Woods -- the man who at his peak played the game at a higher level than even Nicklaus himself, and whose life imploded for all to see and who subsequently found that even he could be ordinary -- coming back to vanquish Father Time along with Rory and the rest of them.
If Tiger goes 0 for 2014 in the majors, then next year will be the year. And if it's not, then look out, 2016. Sure, Tiger will be 40, but Jack won at 46, and Woods looks to be in better shape than Nicklaus ever was. And he can't really be done yet, not the Woods we knew. Tiger is still Tiger, Augusta still looms large, and this is going to be the year. This is always going to be the year, whatever year it is.
HE HAS MAJOR ISSUES
Tiger was only 32 when he won his last major, the 2008 U.S. Open. Since then, he's played like someone much older than a thirtysomething. We compared Tiger's major performance in his heyday with the "Old Man Tiger" we've seen the last five years.
TIGER OF OLD: Aggregate under-par score while winning four straight majors in 2000–2001: -65
OLD MAN TIGER: Aggregate over-par score in the four majors last year, his worst since 2003[+18]: +14
TIGER OF OLD: Missed cuts in the majors in 2006 [at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot], after which he won the 2006 British Open and PGA Championship: 1
OLD MAN TIGER: Missed cuts in the 2011 majors [PGA Championship], after which he finished 40th at the 2012 Masters and 21st at the U.S. Open: 1
TIGER OF OLD: Number of times Woods shot in the 60s in the second round of his 14 major wins: 14
OLD MAN TIGER: Number of times Woods shot in the 60s in the second round in his last 18 majors: 3
TIGER OF OLD: Number of rounds of 73 or higher during his 14 major championship victories: 2, about 3.5%
OLD MAN TIGER: Number of rounds of 73 or higher during his 18 major championships since: 23, About 33%
TIGER OF OLD: Number of times Woods had lost a major he led through 54 holes, before falling to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship: 0
OLD MAN TIGER: Number of times Woods has led a major through 54 holes since falling to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA: 0