Tiger's only rival is the record book

Tiger’s only rival is the record book

"I knew that I could attain another level," Woods said after winning the Buick, "and here we are."
Robert Beck/SI

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but it appears that Tiger Woods has only one real rival: the record book. And, also obvious, that showdown is looking like a mismatch on the order of Evander Holyfield versus Dennis Kucinich. I’ll take Woods in this one and give the points.

Golf is facing a crisis more imminent than global warming. It’s running out of records for Tiger to surpass. His victory at Torrey Pines was the 62nd of his career, tying Arnold Palmer for fourth place on the PGA Tour’s all-time victory list. The man is only 32.

Here’s a checklist of accomplishments that remain for Tiger, and my take on how likely he is to accomplish them:

Ben Hogan, 64 career victories. Are you serious? Unbeatable Tiger is likely to blow past the Wee Ice Mon by the time he returns to Torrey Pines in June to capture the U.S. Open. Unless that secret spy satellite that’s falling out of orbit lands on Tiger’s head, this one’s a lock to happen very soon, maybe even by the Masters. Before long, Tiger can serve Hogan’s most famous quote back to him: “You’re away.”

Jack Nicklaus, 73 career victories. Tiger is 11 back in this race. Laugh if you want, but I give Tiger an outside chance of catching Jack’s total this year. There are two factors working in this Woodsian reign of terror. First, Tiger isn’t merely on a hot streak; he’s reached a new, higher level of play. Think back to a year ago. He was struggling with his swing at times but still went to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in late February with seven consecutive PGA Tour wins under his belt. If he can do that when his swing is a little off, what can he do when he’s locked in? Second, who’s chasing Tiger? Vijay Singh’s post-40 surge faded last year. Phil Mickelson was missing in action most of last summer after wrist problems. Jim Furyk is solid but not a guy who wins four times in a year. Woods is poised to maybe run the table in ’08.

Sam Snead, 82 career victories. Sorry, Slammer, but you’re going down, too. Years ago, I projected Tiger would surpass El Sneado’s coveted mark and probably make a serious bid for 100 wins. Woods checks this record off his list sometime in mid-2010, maybe when he wins another U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

The Grand Slam. He’s already notched four majors in a row, just not in the same calendar year. This year sets up great for him, the best of any major schedule since 2000 (when he won three of four at Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla). He has won four Masters. He hasn’t won a U.S. Open since ’02, but he has finished second twice in that span, and he’ll be the off-the-board favorite at Torrey Pines. The British Open goes to Royal Birkdale, where he placed third behind buddy Mark O’Meara in ’98. The PGA Championship is at Oakland Hills, where Woods led the U.S. Open’s first round as an amateur until he dunked two balls in the water at 16, made an 8 and ultimately finished 82nd. Woods has already declared a Grand Slam do-able. This year seems tailor-made for him to pull it off.

Sam Snead, 8 victories at the same tournament. Snead won eight times in Greensboro. Not only will Woods beat this record, he’ll beat it more than once. Woods has six victories at Torrey Pines, Firestone and the CA Championship. There’s no reason to think he’s going to quit dominating at the first two, and now that the CA Championship has relocated to Doral, a favorite Tiger track, he’ll keep adding to his total there. And don’t forget Nicklaus’s prediction, made only half in jest, that Tiger would win at least 10 Masters.

Jack Nicklaus, 18 majors. This legendary mark could fall as early as next year. Woods has 13 titles, and what was unthinkable once is now nearly inevitable, especially if Woods wins three or more majors this season.

Byron Nelson, 11 wins in a row. Tiger got to seven last year before Nick O’Hern knocked him out of the match play in Tucson. For a taped CBS segment last weekend, David Feherty asked point-blank if Tiger could win 12 in a row. Woods answered without hesitation, “Uh-huh.” That means yes. The way Tiger cherry-picks his schedule and plays lots of limited-field events, I agree it’s possible, and I expect him to make at least one more serious run at Byron’s mark.

Most consecutive victories in a single event. Woods already owns a share of this one. He made it four in a row Sunday at Torrey Pines, and he had already won four straight at Bay Hill. Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Tom Morris Jr. also pulled off the feat. Woods returns to Torrey Pines next year and locks this one up.

58. In some ways, it’s surprising that Woods hasn’t already broken 60 in tournament play. He’s the best golfer of all-time, the most explosive and maybe the best putter. He has shot 59 in a practice round, but 61 is his career low in competition. He plays the most difficult setups on Tour and skips the lesser events, but his length gives him more eagle opportunities than most. He may never get to 58, which would set the Tour’s single-round record, or 59, which would tie it, but I’ll mark him down as almost a sure thing to beat the long-standing low score in a major — 63.

Byron Nelson, 18 wins in one season. Here’s a record Tiger will never break. He usually plays only 18 or 19 Tour events in a year. He’d have to win every single time he teed it up. Even for Tiger, that’s unlikely.