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Tiger Woods running out of time to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors

Dan Wetzel
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Woods: 'Still Too Soon' if Ready for Masters

Woods: 'Still Too Soon' if Ready for Masters

Woods: 'Still Too Soon' if Ready for Masters

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Today in History for December 18th

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Today in History for December 18th

Almost every year at the Masters, Jack Nicklaus, the man whose record 18 major championships seems more untouchable by the day, year and Tiger Woods back spasm, holds court with the media.

He almost always plays a little coy, offering a polite, passive aggressive bit of competitive talk. He consistently says he expects Woods, stuck since 2008 on 14 majors, to one day take his record. Yet Jack always notes it won't be easy because it keeps getting more difficult with each successive missed opportunity.

In 2010: "They asked me if Tiger would not play this year, what did I think about my record. I said I think it would be a lot more difficult because three of the golf courses we are playing are courses he likes very much, obviously Augusta and Pebble Beach and St. Andrews."

In 2011: "He will probably pass my record, but then … I always say, he's still got to do it. If you look at what he's got to do, he's still got to win five more, and that's more than a career for anybody else playing."

In 2013: "Obviously the older he gets and if he doesn't win, it makes my record move out further."

Tiger went oh-fer in all of those years, of course.

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A back injury could keep Tiger Woods from playing in this year's Masters. (AP)

On Monday, Woods said he is uncertain if he'll even be able to compete in this year's Masters, which is two weeks away. His back remains a significant problem.

"For Augusta, it's actually a little too soon to be honest with you," Woods said. "That's kind of the frustrating thing about this. I've had a couple weeks off getting treatment, just working on trying to get ready for Augusta.

"As of right now, it's still too soon," he continued. "As I said, it's very frustrating."

Here's guessing Tiger will be in Georgia. Since he is able to only chip and putt, an already frustrating and sporadic game during part of the early season is not being sharpened. It might be a moot point anyway.

For years, golf waited for a single rival to come along to challenge or dethrone Tiger Woods. Some have popped up, but never one consistently the way Nicklaus overtook Palmer who overtook Hogan who overtook …

Woods has had to fight back a surge of golfers taking turns to try to knock him down, whether it's Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy or Angel Cabrera or just whomever gets hot at the moment.

In the end, time – via a back injury that never is easy to get right – might do in Tiger, and that, through all the years of dual-purpose dishing of wisdom and subtle smack talk, is what Nicklaus was getting at.

It's always been easy to assume Woods, now 38, would be able to play at an elite level into at least his mid-40s.

In terms of fitness, he's like no other golfer before him. He's as ripped now as ever. Club technology is light years ahead of what it was in the old days. And his competitive focus remains sharp, if only because Nicklaus' 18 majors still sits out there as a challenge.

Jack had no such bar to attempt to clear. In 1980, at age 40, he won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. His 17 majors at the time were six higher than the late Walter Hagen's 11 and were safely assumed to be untouchable. For a host of reasons, Nicklaus took a step back from being ultra competitive.

"I really sort of finished my career, basically, in 1980," Nicklaus said. "I was doing a lot more golf course design and watching my kids play football, basketball or baseball or golf or whatever it might be. And I was frankly enjoying my life."

If Tiger wins two majors at age 40, he sure isn't dialing down things. Nicklaus kept playing on the PGA Tour, only less and not with the same mindset. He famously won his final major in Augusta in 1986, at age 46.

Woods has just 36 more chances to win five by the time he turns 46. Yes, there was a stretch from 1999-2001 where he won five of six majors, but that level of absurd dominance is unrealistic.

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Jack Nicklaus (left) won three majors after age 40. (AP)

In his past 22 majors, Tiger skipped four because of injury, twice missed the cut and six times finished outside the top 20.

He's still Tiger Woods, though. He has fought through a slew of injuries from his knees to his Achilles to return to the top of the rankings. A back is something different. There's simply no way to adjust or fight through it in the game of golf. There isn't a simple, absolute surgical repair. The pain can return at any time.

The current drought has been a battle between reality and perception. Tiger fans expect the switch to flip at any moment and the old champ to return. Most casual golf fans certainly would welcome it because he remains the most electric presence on the course.

Yet during majors, it hasn't completely happened for reasons ranging from injury, to a loss of his previously otherworldly putting, to an inconsistent driver, to a rise of young talent, to the embarrassment of personal scandal.

As Nicklaus kept steadily reminding each year, it wasn't that Woods was no longer capable of winning in the moment. It was that the unknowns of future crept closer.

Now they might be here. To miss Augusta would be brutal. It's Woods' ideal course. Even when it's "Tiger-proofed," the course has played nicely to his game. He's won four green jackets and had seven other top-five finishes. Even at his lowest, he usually found a way to hang around in contention.

If he was ever going to win five more majors, a few of them likely needed to come there.

Ever since Woods burst onto the scene at Augusta in 1997, winning by a ridiculous 12 strokes, the promise of historic greatness was there. The sport surged around him. When he won his eighth major at age 27, the pursuit of Nicklaus became realistic, if not inevitable. Tiger declared it his ultimate goal. Almost everyone thought he'd make it. At the very least, the chase would be thrilling.

Now, who knows? It might just peter out with a whimper.

Two weeks out from the Masters, and there's no certainty he'll even be able to show up; age and his back possibly robbing him of one more precious chance and moving Nicklaus' mark one more step toward the unattainable.

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