On the evening of June 16, 2008, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods won his third U.S. Open crown and 14th overall major title by defeating his fellow American Rocco Mediate in a pulsating sudden-death playoff showdown at the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California. At the very tender age of 32 (by golfing standards), the sky appeared to be a conservative limit for the prodigy who’d revolutionized the sport since making his debut on the PGA Tour back in 1996.
Niggling left knee issues aside, here was a man at the height of his powers – with the world at his feet. He was already the world’s highest paid sportsman by a comfortable margin. He was also seemingly happily married with a loving wife by his side. In short, Woods appeared primed to dominate the sport for another decade. In that time, he’d obliterate Jacklaus Nicklaus’ all-time career major championship record mark of 18 titles. He’d decimate Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA Tour wins. He’d even add Seve Ballesteros’ all-time European Tour standard of 50 career wins for good measure. He’d…still be sitting on 14 career majors in May 2014!!!???
Inconsistent form, a succession of injuries, and the ugly dissolution of a marriage that once appeared to have been plucked straight out of a fairytale have contributed to Woods’ fall from grace. He’s still the top-ranked male golfer in the world – despite not having won a title on the PGA Tour since bagging the Bridgestone Invitational trophy back in August of last year. (It really causes you to wonder how credible all of these “official” ranking systems are, doesn’t it? I see you FIFA.) However, the troubling back problem that recently forced him out of the Masters seems likely to keep him on the shelf for quite some time to come (God forbid).
When he does return, he’s likely to continue facing more and more fields filled with competitors who aren’t fazed by the (rapidly fading) mystique that once made his rivals cower in fear before he hit the course and crumble in panic once he did. He’s still likely to break Sam Snead’s PGA Tour wins record. He might even get to Seve’s record. However, the odds of him winning more than 18 majors are lengthening prolifically by the second. Here’s why.
- Age 40 is just around the corner
40 is widely viewed as the age at which most golfers go into terminal decline. (Woods is less than two years removed from attaining this “stately” age.) History tells us that very few men have been able to summon the wherewithal required to close the deal in majors once this stage of life has been reached. Jack Nicklaus, the only man who currently sits ahead of Tiger on the all-time list of major winners, is the gold standard in this regard. Nicklaus won a total of three majors after turning 40 – including a win at 1986 Masters at the ripe old age of 46. Incidentally, he won his 15th – the 1978 Open Championship (British Open) – at the age of 38. If Woods recovers in time, he’ll still be 38 as he goes in search of his 15th major when the 2014 edition of this storied tournament tees off at England’s Royal Liverpool Golf Club in July. However, with the injuries piling up, it’s unlikely that Woods will be able to enjoy the type of championship-level longevity that Nicklaus did. The clock is definitely ticking.
- He can’t bully golf courses like he once did
In his physical prime, Tiger Woods was a serial bully of golf courses. He’d batter them into submission with booming drives and powerfully precise iron play that made virtually every par-5 (and even some par-4s) serious eagle opportunities. The “Tiger-proofing” of courses, which basically resulted in most being lengthened, was one of the measures taken to neutralize Woods’ length. That strategy didn’t really work because all the other players had to contend with the same tee-to-green distances that Tiger had to deal with. Father Time and the injury bug, however, have proven much more difficult adversaries to overcome. In fact, they now both appear to be winning the battle against the once seemingly invincible champion. A succession of knee and back injuries has limited Woods’ length, bringing him right back into the middle of the pack. He’ll have to start leaning more heavily on his driving accuracy and putting efficiency as time goes on. Can this ageing “Tiger” change his stripes? Only time will tell.
The light at the end of the tunnel
If Tiger can get well soon, there’s still a chance that he could achieve his lifelong ambition of surpassing Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors. However, his latest period of convalescence needs to produce the desired health results in as short a time as possible. Adding another Open Championship title to the one he secured at Royal Liverpool back in 2006 could just be the catalyst he needs to reignite his chances of emerging from the major wilderness as statistically the greatest golfer of all-time.