June 11, 2013 at 6:39 am

John Niyo

Tiger Woods' quest to best Jack Nicklaus is race against the clock

Since Tiger Woods' 2008 win at Torrey Pines, arguably the most cherished of his major triumphs, considering the torn ACL and stress fractures he endured, golf has seen a parade of first-time major winners and some thrilling finishes. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, he was the rarest breed of Tiger, stalking his prey on one leg and still finding a way to make the kill.

That was five years ago, though, that remarkable playoff win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. And now as Tiger Woods gets ready for another U.S. Open, this time at tradition-rich, rain-drenched Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia, we can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever catch the prey he has long sought: Jack Nicklaus and his record of 18 major championship wins.

Nicklaus still thinks he will — “I think he’s just too talented, too driven and too focused on that,” he said at the Masters in April — and I do, too, though like Nicklaus, I’m starting to hedge my bet a little. Coming up short again at Augusta wasn’t a good sign, even if it took a bad bounce and a worse drop to keep him from winning.

But just because everyone else seems to be feeling a sense of urgency about this historic chase doesn’t mean Woods is, at least not publicly. Asked in a recent ESPN interview when he’ll start to stress, Woods deadpanned, “Maybe when I’m 60.”

And as the 37-year-old with 14 major titles to his name reminded everyone at the Masters a couple months ago, “It took Jack a while to get to 18 — all the way until he was 46 years old — so there’s plenty of opportunities for me.”

He’s got time, sure. But no golfer has won more than four majors past the age of 37. (Nicklaus won his 16th and 17th at age 40, then added another Masters title at 46 with that amazing back nine in 1986.) And if Tiger really wants to catch the Golden Bear — he does, just ask him — it’s time to start making the most of his opportunities again.

If nothing else, it’d remind casual golf fans — not to mention the sponsors and television networks — what they’ve been missing. Woods is poised to sign a new endorsement deal with Nike, as his current contract — worth an reported $20 million-plus annually — is set to expire. And his win at the Players Championship last month drew huge TV ratings, the highest for a non-major since 2007 (another Woods victory) and the highest for the PGA Tour’s “fifth major” in two decades.

It's all about the majors

Since Woods’ 2008 win at Torrey Pines, arguably the most cherished of his major triumphs, considering the torn ACL and stress fractures he endured, golf has seen a parade of first-time major winners and some thrilling finishes. But even that novelty act has grown a bit old over time. Seventeen different winners in the last 19 major championships? That’s the kind of parity only a small-market NHL owner could appreciate.

And while Woods has been busy rehabbing — first his knee, then his swing, and later his family life and tattered image as a result of his well-publicized infidelity — American golf has been searching in vain for a new flagbearer. Only six of the last 19 major titles were claimed by U.S.-born golfers, and four in the last four years ties us with Northern Ireland, if you’re keeping score.

That’s a sign of the times, obviously: Four of the top 10 golfers in the world rankings are Americans at the moment, and the Europeans made off with the Ryder Cup again last fall with an epic comeback at Medinah. But it’s also a sign of just how good we had it with Woods, who reclaimed the top spot from Rory McIlroy back in March after a 2.5-year hiatus.

Woods, with his revamped swing finally tuned, if not finely tuned, has won four times on the PGA Tour already this year, giving him seven wins in the last 15 months. That’s 78 Tour wins in his career, five more than Nicklaus and just four shy of Sam Snead’s PGA record.

And while you could certainly make the argument that Woods already is the greatest golfer ever, it’d be an argument undercut by the simple fact he long ago made it clear Nicklaus’ major-championship record was the true measure of his own greatness.

That’s why the near-misses tend to resonate, why the weekend stumbles at majors suddenly raise red flags, why an unforgiving flagstick and a two-stroke penalty at the Masters seem to matter just a little bit more.

“I think as we talked a little about Augusta, he’s put an awful lot of pressure on himself,” said Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open winner who now works as an ESPN golf analyst. “He might be putting more pressure on himself even now than he ever has, because he hasn’t won. I mean, he’s in a position right now very much like a good player is when he hasn’t won a major and he’s trying to win for the first time.”

Can he end the drought?

There’s a first time for everything, I suppose. Even for Woods in the second act of his career. And it’s interesting to hear the golf analysts such as North, Johnny Miller and Paul Azinger talking this week about Merion — best known for Ben Hogan’s 1-iron in 1950 — playing into Woods’ hands because it’s a shorter course. Woods ranks first on the Tour in scoring and fifth in putting this year, but his driver still betrays him at times, as it did a couple weeks ago at the Memorial.

“If he doesn’t have to hit driver, it sounds crazy, but he’s tough to beat,” Miller said.

Catching Nicklaus once seemed like a crazy notion, too. And then it wasn’t. But now everything has come full circle, leaving Tiger chasing his own tail, I guess.

“I know my game is headed in the direction that I can put myself there in contention at each and every major I play,” he told ESPN. “Whether I win or not, who knows? But I know that I can put myself there. And you put yourself there enough times, you’re gonna win a bunch.”

That’s the goal, at least. Tiger’s back in contention. But can he finish the job?

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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