Why Jack Nicklaus's record is out of Tiger Woods's reach

Why Jack Nicklaus’s record is out of Tiger Woods’s reach

Tiger's last major win came at the 2008 U.S. Open.
John Mummert/USGA

Three years ago, I predicted that 2011 would be the year that Tiger Woods broke Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles. The timing is hazy, but I seem to remember that this was just before he won the U.S. Open on one leg, his 14th major victory. What isn't hazy was the laughter among the golf writers around me. They thought my prediction was crazy. Certainly he would break the record long before 2011.

Tiger Woods, more than any golfer before him, altered the very way people thought about golf. For hundreds of years, golf had been a sport about mystery and uncertainty and the wild quirks of chance. Good days and bad days. Woods eradicated most of that. He didn't have many bad days. He wasn't just the favorite every time he played, he was the overwhelming favorite. He was the first pro golfer who was better than everyone else in every way. And, perhaps most of all, he better understood the mechanics of winning tournaments. When he made that putt on the last green in that one-legged U.S. Open to force a playoff , the only logical reaction was: "Well, of course he did."

Woods had it down. He won six majors from 2005 through the middle of 2008—never losing a major lead on Sunday—and seemed likely to keep on winning one out of every two for as long as he liked. I picked 2011 as the year he would break the record, and I picked that year to be conservative.

As it turned out, 2011 was about Tiger Woods, but not for reasons anyone expected. This was the year we were introduced to the players who are sure to be regular stars of our Sunday viewing for years to come—Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel, and so on. But, even more, this was the year when golf once again became unpredictable. McIlroy blew a Sunday lead at the Masters and just two months later at the U.S. Open blew away the field. Darren Clarke won a major at 42. Bradley won a major with a belly putter.

And Tiger didn't win at all. As you know, he hasn't won a major championship since 2008. As of press time, he hasn't won a tournament of any kind since his infamous Thanksgiving Day accident. He has dropped out of the world's Top 50. He has battled injuries and scandal, putting problems and swing changes. He fired his caddie. It was that kind of year.

Woods remains four majors shy of Nicklaus's record. You never want to write off a legend like Woods, but the simple truth seems unavoidable: The odds of him even tying Nicklaus, much less beating him, are astronomical. His knee is a mess. His game is in disarray. His putts lip out. And this month he turns 36, which isn't as young as his fans wish to believe. No golfer 36 and older (not Nicklaus, not Gary Player) has won the five majors Woods needs to win to reach his goal.

Golf, in many ways, is the most unrelenting of our sports. In other sports, you can hold on for a while by using a few tricks you picked up along the way and by living off your reputation. Umpires might give you an extra inch off the plate. Basketball refs might look away if you take an extra step. In golf, though, it's about strokes. That's it. The ball and the hole don't care if you're Tiger, Arnie or Hogan. Woods can't glare his way back to the top, and he can't intimidate his way back, either. It comes down to four days and fewer strokes.

Nicklaus recently said that Woods could become the best player in the world again. But that's the class of Nicklaus. I think of something else Jack said. I once asked him why players lose their putting stroke when they get older. Jack said that to putt well you have to be sure. And he said that the older you get, the less sure you are about anything.