Jack Nicklaus will be leisurely sitting back and watching the Masters that begins on Thursday. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, with his usual stoic focus and concentration, will be swinging away in that event, the year’s first major.
Nicklaus’ work, at age 73, is done. He has won 18 majors while Woods, 37, holds 14 majors and is trying to catch and surpass Nicklaus.
Neither Nicklaus nor Woods, who can be called friends but probably not close friends, likes to talk about the possibility of whether Woods can or will overtake Nicklaus.
Three years ago, Nicklaus said, “Let’s see how he does in the next few years.”
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Those few years have gone by, Woods has not added any majors to his résumé and a few weeks ago Nicklaus slightly upped the ante, saying of Tiger, “He better hurry up.”
Woods, in a recent interview with CNN, said, “If you say hypothetically [I have] 10 more years, that’s 40 more majors championships I get a chance to play in and compete in and try to win, and hopefully I can try to win five of those.”
A factor working for Woods: He has regained his form as well as the world’s No. 1 ranking, winning six of the past 20 events he has entered.
A factor working against Woods: He has not won a major in four years and 10 months, that being the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
In golf, the four majors — The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship — are held in such lofty status that they are the measurement of determining a golfer’s standing in the sport’s history. That’s why Nicklaus is considered the greatest golfer of all time, no questions asked. And there’s only one golfer within hailing distance of taking that title from him, and that would be Woods.
Before his near five-year drought in majors, Woods was considered a sure bet to overtake Nicklaus. Now, he’s a great big maybe. So, this year’s Masters looms large.
Winning majors, as the best of the pros will say, is no easy task. Just one or two major championships in a career almost certainly puts a player in the Hall of Fame.
So, who better to give their opinion on one of golf’s most discussed subjects — can Woods surpass Nicklaus? — than 10 players, five under 50 and five over 50, who have all won majors and know the difficulty that it presents.
OK, people’s opinions are certainly not a scientific process — actually, it’s definitely no t scientific. It’s a poll, and not a formula. But it’s the opinion of knowledgeable people who have dealt with the grueling, pressurized “winning-a-major experience.” Who would know more than guys who have been there and done that?
So, here’s what they had to say:
THE YOUNGER THAN 50
• Keegan Bradley, 26 (won 2011 PGA): “I think that Tiger has a great chance. I would never bet against Tiger Woods. His game is completely back, and I think he’ll be playing some pretty good golf the next couple of years. Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods. He’ll find a way to get it done.”
• Graeme McDowell, 33 (won 2010 U.S. Open): “There’s a lot of great players around, and that will make it difficult. Tiger doesn’t have the invincibility he once had. I would make it 50-50. His swing is so brutal and hard, it can wear on him. If he stays healthy into his 40s, then he might make it.”
• Geoff Ogilvy, 35 (won 2006 U.S. Open): “If he gets his game completely worked out, he might do it quite easily. I wouldn’t bet either way, but the pattern looks good right now. I would say even money. But if he wins two this year, it looks obvious that he will do it.”
Padraig Harrington, 41 (won 2007 and 2008 British Opens, 2008 PGA): “It’s not hard to imagine that he will do it. Tiger is not far away. But majors have a mind of their own. They are special. I say it’s 80 to 90 percent he’ll do it. He’s got the time to do it. He’s got the game to do it.”
• Jim Furyk, 42 (won 2003 U.S. Open): “I don’t care. I can’t control it. I wish Tiger well, but I don’t care to make a judgment. To be honest, nobody knows. I really don’t have an opinion, and nobody has the answer to that question. What I think doesn’t make a difference.”
THE 50 AND OLDER
• Arnold Palmer, 83 (won seven majors — 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 Masters, 1960 U.S. Open and 1964, 1968 PGA Championships): “I would say it’s very questionable for Tiger to do it now, but it’s still possible. Tiger’s a great player, but that is a hard accomplishment. I would give him a 30 percent chance.”
• Gary Player, 77 (won nine majors — 1961, 1974, 1978 Masters, 1965 U.S. Open, 1959, 1968, 1974 British Opens and 1962, 1972 PGA Championships): “I would give him a 100 percent chance to do it if he stays healthy. If anybody says he won’t, they’re dreaming. He’s so much better than anyone else. Also, golf needs him to start winning majors again.”
• Ben Crenshaw, 61 (won 1984, 1995 Masters): “Certainly, Tiger has the capacity to do it — it’s within him. It would not be surprising, but things have to go very right on the golf course. You have to have some good luck. It’s 60-40 he won’t do it.”
• Tom Lehman, 54 (won 1996 British Open): “I’m betting no that Tiger doesn’t do it. The odds are against him. Winning after 40 is historically difficult. Saying that, he’s such a good player I would not be surprised if it happened. I say there is a 20 percent chance he will do it and 80 percent he won’t.”
• Larry Nelson, 65 (won three majors, 1983 U.S. Open and 1981 and 1987 PGA Championships): “You have to have a crystal ball to figure out if Tiger will do it – and I’ve learned to not believe in crystal balls. He’s got plenty of time, but you never know how healthy he’ll be. It’s 60-40 that he won’t.”
Four say Woods will not surpass Nicklaus, three say he will, and three are either 50-50 or have no opinion.
OK, so we’ve had our fun, but let’s go to the real authority on whether Woods will eventually vault past Nicklaus. Money talks, and that means consulting the experts in Vegas.
For this year’s Masters, Woods is the favorite at approximately 3-1, and rounding out the top five are Phil Mickelson (12-1), Rory McIlroy (15-1), Brandt Snedeker (20-1) and Justin Rose (25-1).
As for eclipsing Nicklaus’ majors mark of 18, the odds vary slightly, but on the average come out with Woods having just less than a break-even chance, at 45 percent, of going past Nicklaus.
Nicklaus won his 14th major when he was 35; Woods won his 14th at age 32, but now he’s 37 and still stuck at 14. Nicklaus won his 18th and final major at 46, six years after his 17th.
There are a multitude of numbers that can be thrown around in this debate, but it’s the title of being the best golfer of all-time that remains the focus, both for the golfers and the fans.
Woods once put it this way:
“It has always been my goal to pass Jack’s 18. The benchmark and gold standard in this sport is his 18.”
That is, unless Woods can eventually change that number to 19.