For more than a year now, the golf world has been waiting.
We have been waiting for the Tiger Woods that stands alone at the top of golf world to reclaim his position.
With each passing week, the question has changed from when to if it will ever happen.
It’s strange to watch golf and not see Tiger’s name at the top of the leaderboard. It’s strange to watch analysts pick other golfers to win tournaments when Tiger is in the field. It’s strange to watch Tiger Woods play ordinary golf.
But this is the world in which we live.
Looking ahead, Tiger only has one more goal left unchecked: 18.
Jack Nicklaus' major championship record.
With four majors separating Tiger from Jack, is this still an achievable goal?
I will admit, I went back and forth on this one more than a few times while preparing this piece. I still think Tiger can do it, but I no longer believe it to be an eventuality.
If he doesn’t break the record, here are five things that will likely have stood in his way:
The old adage that one’s best golf is played in your 30s and 40s went out with the VHS tape. The game of golf is getting younger, and Tiger Woods is getting older.
Tiger is 35. In any other major sport, he’d be a dinosaur. Once the longest driver on Tour, he now ranks 69th in driving distance (289-yard average).
With time, his game will continue to change from one of power to one of finesse. That will require a kind of control and ball-striking that he hasn’t displayed thus far in his career.
The players who have stayed relevant into their 40s have been the ones who know exactly where their ball is going all the time. Guys like Jim Furyk and Scott Verplank can still play at a high level because they rarely hit bad shots.
Tiger Woods’ game has often relied on his ability to pull off shots that no one else in the world could. As he continues to age, the range of shots available to him will continue to diminish.
At some point, age catches up with every athlete. Even if Tiger can play at a high level for another 10 years (hardly a sure thing), he will need to win 10 percent of the majors he enters (assuming he doesn’t miss any) to match Jack’s record.
That is by no means an impossible feat, but it is hardly a guarantee.
When Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open on what turned out to be a severely injured left knee, I was at once amazed at the accomplishment and concerned at what it would mean for his future.
Almost two years later, that concern has never been more relevant.
Tiger is once again fighting an injury to his left knee, and although he will be in the field for this week’s Players Championship, the questions about his long-term health are tough to ignore.
The modern golf swing is an extremely athletic motion. I always got angry in college when people would see my Loyola Athletics gear and scoff when they learned I was a golfer, as if I wasn’t really an athlete.
Top golfers swing the club at well over 100 mph and create an incredible amount of torque with their bodies. Any doctor will tell you that this motion is extremely tough on the back and knees.
Tiger Woods revolutionized the sport of golf in part because of the power with which he plays the game. That power has its consequences, and his injuries aren’t likely to go away.
If Tiger goes on to break Jack’s record, he might have to get used to doing it on one leg.
As Tiger struggles to regain the form that won him 14 major championships, the biggest emerging problem for him is his putting.
Here is a look at his putting stats over the last four years:
2007: Fourth on the PGA Tour, 1.733 putts per green in regulation
2008: 1.735 (not enough rounds to qualify for a ranking)
2009: 24th, 1.743
2010: 1.751 (not enough rounds to qualify for a ranking)
His average has gone up each year since 2007, and while Tiger’s 2011 stats aren’t yet available, I would not be surprised if his average were as high as 1.8 putts per GIR.
That is not good.
It has gotten so bad that Tiger has been experimenting with a variety of new putters this season. From a guy who used the same putter for virtually his entire professional career, this is a very bad sign. It’s a sign that he has lost confidence in his putting, which can be a deadly and irreversible problem.
The only guys who mess with their putters are the ones who can’t putt, plain and simple.
I could fill pages with the names of good players who were never great because of poor putting. It is the most important part of the game and also the most difficult to improve upon.
Tiger obviously has the pedigree to be a great putter, but it remains to be seen whether he can regain the stroke that delivered some of the greatest clutch putts in golf history.
Any way you slice it, the PGA Tour is filled with far more talented players now than at any time during Jack Nicklaus’ career. Players today are better trained, better tested and more highly skilled than those that Jack competed against.
Even holding things like technology constant, Jack’s competition still doesn’t stack up.
The advent of junior golf associations like the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) have created a generation of golfers that aren’t afraid of big tournaments and can win from day one on the PGA Tour.
During the 1960s and 1970s, it was almost unheard of to have players in their early 20s among the best players in the world. Now it’s a forgone conclusion.
Once upon a time, Tiger was one of those young guns, but as I’ve previously written, the new crop of youngsters on tour is the best we’ve ever seen. These players possess the skill and moxie to go toe-to-toe with Tiger and not blink.
Combine them with a great group of well-known veterans (Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, etc.), and you have the deepest group of talent the PGA Tour has ever seen. That makes it all but impossible for Tiger to win a major with anything but his A-game.
This is far and away the biggest impediment between Tiger and Jack’s record. Watching Tiger play now, I question whether he still has that extra gear that he can call on to carry him to victory.
Leading up to this year’s Masters, I wrote about what Tiger needed to do to win. At the top of that list was “Regain his killer instinct.” Heading into the turn on Sunday, I thought he had. But then something strange happened.
The Tiger Woods of 2007 would have won this year’s Masters. There is no question in my mind. He would have stayed closer to the lead through the first three days, and by the time he made the turn on Sunday, he would have held the lead and turned on the after burners en route to victory.
You could just see it in his eyes back then. Before his personal problems surfaced, Tiger had an air of invincibility when he played. He simply refused to lose when he was close to the lead.
If Tiger has any hope of breaking Jack’s record, he needs to find that extra gear and regain his killer instinct.
If he can’t, then all the swing changes, putting changes and coaching changes in the world won’t lead him to the one goal he has yet to reach.