Augusta , Ga. — Tiger Woods is looking good through two practice rounds at the Masters. He’s sounding cool and confident, and has fans, fellow competitors and media wondering if he can pull it together and contend this week for a fifth green jacket.
“I’m excited to be back, to be back playing at this level,” Woods said.
Not so fast, Eldrick. Woods isn’t going to contend this week or break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
He may break something else — a hip, an elbow, maybe a leg like he did winning his last major, the 2008 U.S. Open.
But he’s been stuck on 14 majors since then, four short of Jack’s mark, his blinding ambition since childhood.
He’s not going to get there. At 39, his body and his psyche has been through too much.
The golf gods don’t give you everything. They gave Woods artillery-like power, the touch of a concert pianist, and the withering glare of Bela Lugosi.
But they also saddled him with a body as fragile as the fine china. It’s his anchor as he reaches for an increasingly distant star.
Woods’ biggest problem is time. Age. The inexorable sweep of the clock that stops for no one, not even him.
Woods still owns four green jackets, the same as Arnold Palmer, the same number he had 10 years ago when he chipped in on the last swoosh of his Nike ball on the par-3 16th and went on to beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
For the first time since early in his career, Woods is behind Nicklaus’ pace. The Golden Bear won his 15th major at 38 in the 1978 British Open. He won his 16th and 17th in 1980 at the U.S. Open and PGA, and most famously of all won his 18th major at 46 in the 1986 Masters with a Sunday 65, a final round for the aged.
At this point in his career, his surgery-filled, scandal-marred, revolving swing coach career, for Woods to pass Nicklaus he would have to do something no golfer has ever done.
In the modern major championship era, since the Masters was first played in 1934, no one has won five majors after age 39. The best anyone has done is win three. Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead all did that.
Five majors is a Hall of Fame career. Phil Mickelson has five majors. So do Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros.
As for this year’s Masters, there are at least 30 golfers with a better chance to win than Woods. There are 74 of them slotted ahead of Mr. No. 111 in the world rankings.
Woods has played just 47 holes of competitive golf this year. And in many of those he was hacking and duffing around the greens like someone you’d see in cutoffs at Webb Park, not someone about to slip into a fifth green jacket.
Woods has been grinding back home at his South Florida estate on all aspects of his game. That’s great.
But South Florida is pancake flat. Augusta National isn’t Palm Beach. It’s the most demanding short game course in the world. Hitting onto many of its putting surfaces is like trying to play onto your roof. Have you seen the ninth green? The front third of the thing falls off like Meg Ryan’s acting career.
There’s a myth that golfers age slower than other pro athletes, that their careers can remain at a peak longer. You have Nicklaus winning here in 1986 and Tom Watson nearly winning the 2009 British Open at 59, lightning strikes for the longevity argument.
The closest comparison to what the battered Woods is trying to do is Hogan. In 1949 he suffered a near-fatal car crash at age 36 but came back to win six of his nine career majors, including three of them in 1953 at age 40.
But it’s once a century rare.
By the way, the average age of major champions since 1960 is 32. The age Tiger was when he won the 2008 U.S. Open.