Tiger Woods reaches an important personal milestone today, still four majors short of Jack Nicklaus’ record total of 18. Phil Casey asks if overtaking the Golden Bear is now an impossible dream for the former world No 1
What once looked inevitable now looks impossible, especially when the man himself concedes any future success would be a bonus.
In recent years, Tiger Woods had become notorious for his relentlessly upbeat assessment of his form and fitness, often telling increasingly sceptical members of the media that he was “here to win” in his first tournament back from the latest surgery.
And given that this was the same man who won the US Open on one leg in 2008, there was a nagging reluctance to write off Woods completely, to definitively say the best player of his generation was finished and would not achieve his ambition of surpassing the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
After all, it was only in 2013 that Woods won five times, including the Players Championship and two World Golf Championship events, to be crowned PGA Tour player of the year for the 11th time and win the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average at 68.98.
But then came the nightmare season of 2014 and the initial back operation which forced Woods to miss the Masters for the first time in his career and was the start of a downward spiral of record scores, consecutive missed cuts in majors and more surgery.
As surprising as it was to see Woods shoot rounds of 85 in Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament and 80 in the US Open, it was genuinely shocking to see his press conference at the Hero World Challenge in December.
Seasoned golf journalists expecting a cursory update on the health of the tournament host were treated to a starkly honest assessment that Woods had no timetable for his return, “nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards”.
The former world No 1, winner of 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour titles, admitted: “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy. If that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run.”
That run saw Woods win seven of the 11 majors he contested between the 1999 US PGA Championship and 2002 US Open, a run which included the ‘Tiger Slam’ of US Open, Open Championship and US PGA in 2000 and the 2001 Masters.
And Woods was not finished.
Two days after his press conference in the Bahamas, a wide-ranging interview with Time magazine was published in which the 39-year-old expanded on his future, admitting he was “reconciled” to the possibility of retirement and that the priority of having an active life with his children meant there would be no more surgery.
“Seven’s enough,” Woods said. “Four knees, three backs, that’s enough.”
But can this really be enough for Woods, that ruthless competitor who wanted to be a Navy SEAL, who won the last of his 14 major titles with two stress fractures in his leg and an injured anterior cruciate ligament which required surgery two days after his play-off win?
His fans will point to the likes of Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, who won the Open Championship in consecutive years at the age of 42 or above. They will point to Nicklaus, who defied the critics who said his career was over by winning his 18th major at the age of 46 in the 1986 Masters.
However, there is one major difference between Woods and those men – or perhaps seven differences. While no golfer can claim to be injury-free, Clarke, Els, Mickelson and Nicklaus have had nothing like the number of serious problems as Woods. And certainly not seven major operations.
So when Woods turns 40 today with his world ranking heading towards 500, what once looked inevitable looks increasingly impossible.
Even for Tiger Woods.