It says everything about the greatness of Tiger Woods and the glorious new sporting landscape he’s opened up that he’s got even Jack Nicklaus believing in the impossible.
Jack was on his boat in the Bahamas on Sunday night when he was asked whether he thought Tiger could now reel in his total of 18 majors. The great man chuckled down the telephone line, looked ahead to the next couple of majors being staged on two more venues where Tiger has sprinkled his magic in the past, and told a real fisherman’s tale.
‘You know, he’s got me shaking in my boots, guys,’ said the Golden Bear.
Golfing icon Tiger Woods remarkably won his 15th major at the Masters on Sunday
It was the American’s first major victory since all the way back in 2008 at the US Open
Winning another four majors to surpass Jack sounds easy enough on paper until you think that’s the amount that a player as good as Ernie Els won in his entire career. On Sunday night at the Masters, Woods became the oldest winner of a major since 46-year-old Nicklaus won his 18th in 1986 – and he’s got to do it another four times to get to 19? Only eight players have ever won one major aged 44 or older, let alone more than one.
Naturally, therefore, you’d laugh the idea out of court if we hadn’t witnessed a Sunday at Augusta and a comeback of astounding proportions that put the sport on the front pages of every major newspaper in America. What’s another four majors when you’ve come through the other side of what Tiger’s been through over the past 11 years?
In terms of majors played and what they’ve achieved, Tiger and Jack are almost walking stride for stride. Woods has won 15 majors from the 75 he’s now played as a pro while Nicklaus had won 16. The difference is their ages.
Nicklaus barely suffered from injury his whole career, and was just 38 in reaching the three-quarters of a century mark. Woods, as we know, has had four back operations and four knee surgeries and is now 43.
What Woods has got going for him is momentum and what’s suddenly looking like an absolutely inspired decision to move the USPGA Championship from its traditional date in August to May.
Less than a month before he gets to tee it up in a major setting again, then, rather than the previous two month wait for the US Open. Not only that, but it will be staged in front of the sort of raucous New York crowd that always works in his favour and a mighty venue in Bethpage where he won the US Open in 2002 by three strokes from Phil Mickelson. Intriguingly, Nicklaus also played his 76th major in New York – and ended up winning it.
Jack Nicklaus believes the 43-year-old can eventually surpass his record of 18 major victories
Four weeks after that, and it’s America’s national title that’s on the line at Pebble Beach, where Woods just happened to win in 2000 by a mere 15 shots in the greatest performance in the history of the game. Suddenly, you get a glimpse as to why Jack might be a touch nervous, and why a current double major winner in Brooks Koepka says: ‘The way Tiger’s playing, 18 is actually not that far away.’
That was the thing about Sunday: it wasn’t a one-off. Everyone could see it coming, with the way Tiger contended in the final two majors of last year, when he ran Francesco Molinari close at The Open at Carnoustie and pushed Koepka to the limit following an epic duel at the USPGA. It was followed by his first victory in five years at the Tour Championship last September at another Bobby Jones course, East Lake, where he played alongside Rory McIlroy in the final round and beat him comfortably.
Belief had been restored, and now Woods knows he can win majors again, it’s set up the rest of the summer perfectly.
‘I’ve been saying for a while now that I thought Tiger would win majors again because when you’ve won as many as he’s won you don’t forget what to do,’ said Nicklaus. ‘I was like that in 1986 and Tiger was the same here. The important thing was for him to get healthy and once that happened it became a matter of time. When his opponents were filling up the water hazard at the 12th, I turned to the people I was with and said that was it, he would win. By contrast, he had everything under total control. As long as he stays healthy, I can’t see any reason why he won’t keep winning more majors.’
Woods and Nicklaus together back in 2001 after the former won the Memorial Tournament
Clearly, Woods needs to win one of the tantalising pair coming up – or the Open at Royal Portrush that follows in July – for anyone to really believe it’s game on regarding chasing down Nicklaus.
What has moved firmly into his crosshairs, however, is the other lifetime goal that he set himself when he stepped into the professional game at the age of 21. The all-time record number of wins on the PGA Tour is Sam Snead’s total of 82 victories, composed over three decades. Woods now stands on 81. Given the magnitude of the fairytales this man writes, what price him drawing level or even surpassing Snead while closing on Nicklaus’s majors score this summer?
This is what happens when you inhabit Tiger’s sporting world, where unimaginable vistas open up and suddenly everything feels right in the world of golf again. Sunday night in Augusta is usually quite a sad place, as the town prepares to leave the spotlight for another year, but it was positively buzzing this time. ‘Tiger is back, y’all,’ said the sign above the bar in TBonz, the most popular eaterie on Washington Road, some 500 yards from the entrance of Augusta National.
Those cries of ecstasy Woods let out on the 18th green on Sunday really did become the roars heard round the world. From a tearful Serena in tennis to LeBron in basketball, from A-rod in baseball to the incomparable Olympian Michael Phelps, the greatest in their sport queued up to pay tribute to one of their own.
In Liverpool on Sunday evening, the number one trending item on Twitter was not the victory over Chelsea or Mo Salah but the Masters. In a matter of hours, Nike sold more than $20 million of Tiger merchandise online, and ran out of some items.
Woods and the Augusta patrons celebrate following his winning putt at the Masters on Sunday
When Tiger first appeared in 1997 it led to an explosion of interest that changed the sport forever. The reason the game is currently enjoying a golden age inside the ropes is that Woods inspired naturally talented athletes like Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth to forget their first sporting loves and play golf. You could see in their faces how much they’re enjoying having him back when they all stayed on the premises at Augusta and formed what became an unwitting guard of honour as he made his way from the course to the recording area.
‘Now he’s going to be inspiring another generation,’ said Koepka. Certainly, driving ranges all over the world and municipal courses can surely look forward to a spike in numbers. The hair may be thinning these days and the face anything but fresh, but his charisma remains undimmed.
There’s no lessening of desire, either, as he seeks to make the most of this unexpected second act. Such is the regimen required to get his body in the sort of working order to compete in a major, Tiger was up at 3-45am on Sunday to get ready for his 9-20am tee-time.
It must make it a lot easier going forward with the rapturous memories of Sunday to draw upon, two kids aged 10 and 11 to show off in front of, and the sure-fire knowledge that in each of three more tumultuous majors this year he is going to have the entire world of sport willing him on.
Tiger is back, y’all.
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