Tiger Woods once again rejoins hunt for Jack Nicklaus' crown

Sam Farmer
Los Angeles Times
Patrick Reed helps Tiger Woods with his green jacket after Woods won the Masters for the fifth time.

Augusta, Ga. — Once again, Tiger Woods is hunting history.

Having picked up his 15th major championship by winning the Masters on Sunday, Woods is three short of tying Jack Nicklaus for the most ever.

Nicklaus was 46 when he won his last major, the 1986 Masters. Woods is three years younger. They both went long stretches without winning one  six years for Nicklaus, and 11 years for Woods.

But in an era when 41-year-old Tom Brady can win the Super Bowl, Woods has proved he’s entirely capable of keeping pace with, and surpassing, younger competition. After all, Tom Watson almost won the British Open at age 59.

“I think it’s training and nutrition,” Woods said of a key to his success. “Exercise programs have changed. They have progressed. Guys are able to take care of their bodies for a longer period of time.”

Woods feels the effects of age, of course. He’s had four back surgeries. He can no longer keep up with his kids the way he once could. But he’s adapted his game, too.

“I don’t have to hit the ball 340 yards,” he said. “I can still plod my way around the golf course. We saw it here with Jack in ‘98.”

Nicklaus, then 58, was in contention to win before finishing tied for sixth. He was 5-under after four rounds, the lowest score in Masters history for a player 50 or older.

“In this sport we’re able to play a much longer period of time,” Woods said, “and you’re just seeing guys that are able to take care of their bodies a lot better and be able to play longer.”

Woods won his last U.S. Open in 2008 (Torrey Pines), PGA Championship in 2007 (Southern Hills) and British Open in 2006 (Royal Liverpool).

The next two majors set up nicely for Woods. The PGA Championship is at Bethpage Black next month, where he won the tournament in 2002 and finished tied for sixth in 2008. That’s followed by the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June, where he won the tournament in 2000 by a record-setting 15 strokes.

“He knows how to get it around both those courses,” CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz said. “This could get really interesting as far as the all-time major championship record. Just this summer alone.”

Woods is capable of playing in another 40 majors, the way Nantz sees it, as long as his body doesn’t break down.

“Surgeries aside, he’s done all he can do to keep his body fit, and his speed in his swing alive,” Nantz said. “I think he can go another 10 years if the back and the knee and the Achilles and everything holds up. There’s no reason why, into his 50s, he couldn’t compete at places like this. Is it conceivable that he could win three of 40 majors to tie, four to surpass? Absolutely.”

Unquestionably, Woods made a compelling case for that Sunday.

“I knew the 15th major was going to be the hardest,” said Rickie Fowler, still looking for his first win in a major. “But seeing how healthy he was, and how much fun he was having … But it’s about going out there and actually doing it.”

Disappointed as he was that he didn’t win, Fowler said a Woods victory is good for the game.

“There’s absolutely zero bad or negative things that come from this,” Fowler said. “And if you happen to think so, or there’s people talking bad about it, then you’d better find something else to do.”

Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship in 2017, so he’s only … 14 behind Woods.

“I would really like to start winning some majors when he’s out here so I have something to say,” said Thomas, who finished tied for 12th at Augusta.

“Because,” he added with a smile, “he’s got me beat right now.”

Thomas said he didn’t doubt that Woods would resume his winning.

“To me, (18 majors) was never unreasonable,” he said. “I’ve played enough with him, and I know that he’s playing well enough. I thought today was going to be big, how he handled it and everything.

“He’s been there a lot, and he’s been there more than anybody, but it had been awhile since he’d been there here  had a chance to win here. Whether he admits it or not, I’m sure this is one of the most important and biggest ones.”

Asked if he thinks Nicklaus should be worried about his record falling, Woods shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know if he’s worried or not,” he said. “I’m sure he’s home in West Palm just chilling and watching.”

Naturally, Woods was on target. Golf Channel got ahold of Nicklaus by phone Sunday, fresh off a bone fishing trip to the Bahamas. He got to shore in time to see Woods win.

Nicklaus can do the math.

“The next two majors are at Bethpage, where he’s won, and Pebble Beach, where he’s won,” he said. “He’s got me shaking in my boots, guys.”