Tiger Woods could shoot 75 and 76 in the first two rounds at Augusta National and spend the weekend at home in Orlando, and it will not make the slightest difference: He will surpass Jack Nicklaus one day – most likely in 2016 or 2017 – and win at least 19 majors.
Seems to defy logic, doesn't it?
Woods, after all, has gone without a major victory since Torrey Pines three long years ago – the only time he was in the hunt down the stretch being the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2009, when Y.E. Yang suddenly turned into golf's Buster Douglas. Furthermore, Woods has captured just two of the past 16 majors, hardly the kind of inspiring run that indicates he will win another five. That's a Hall of Fame career by itself.
Yet if history is any guide, time most definitely remains on his side.
Take the two most accomplished players of the 20th century – Ben Hogan and Nicklaus – and one can see the opportunities available to Woods. After Hogan turned 35, Woods' current age, he won eight of his nine majors – and that was despite missing the 1949 season because of a near-fatal automobile accident. Nicklaus, meanwhile, added five to his total after the same age, and he was busy with his other career as a course designer.
Woods will be burdened by no such distractions. He will spend time with his kids and he will be engaged in his own design projects, but the focus will be where the focus has always been – on winning, on breaking records, on being remembered as the greatest golfer who ever lived. That intensity is a huge part of what has made him great and will make him great again.
Will he be the Woods of 2000? No. But that's not the point. The Woods of 2000 won three majors. The Woods of 2011 and beyond only needs to take one out of every six. If he were to do that, he'd pass Nicklaus at the 2018 U.S. Open, when he'd still be just 42.
The skeptics undoubtedly will find this line of reasoning laughable, if not ludicrous. But, like many observers in a culture which demands instant analysis – this guy's stock is up, this guy's is down, etc., etc. – they fail to have sufficient perspective. Woods, we must continue to remember, is still in the middle of a profound swing change with instructor Sean Foley. To expect that he would become the Tiger of old after eight months of working with Foley – that's ludicrous. He was criticized for making swing changes in the past, and it seems those worked out pretty well, didn't they?
Then there's the mental component. Have people forgotten that this is the athlete we labeled as possessing the greatest mental powers of anyone in our era?
One player after another has come out of the weeds to claim Woods has lost what is known as the "intimidation factor." Of course he has. That's what happens when you don't win. Believe this, though: If Woods starts to get hot again, the intimidation factor will be right back where it used to be – striking fear in the minds of his peers.
It is quite true that Woods faces a much tougher level of competition than he did when he overwhelmed the likes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson. The Dustin Johnsons and Bubba Watsons and Martin Kaymers of the world will keep coming after him. They will hit drives which will make Woods, as he has joked, look like the Corey Pavin of the group. They will display their own short-game magic. But they will never be the complete player he is when he's on. Nobody will.
It is fitting that this skepticism toward Woods – uttered, incidentally, by many of the same former believers who anointed him as the greatest ever – should come on the 25th anniversary of the Golden Bear's magical win in the 1986 Masters. Nicklaus, too, had his share of doubters, and it wasn't the first time.
In the spring of 1980, Nicklaus was 40. Over the prior four seasons, he had won only one major: the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews. He was no longer the best in the game, with that distinction going to Tom Watson.
Then came the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Nicklaus won by two over Isao Aoki, prompting an unforgettable message on the scoreboard: "Jack is back."
Tiger will be back as well. Maybe not this week and maybe not this year.
- Jack Nicklaus