Major mission

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

TULSA, Okla. – In a humbling of man and Mother Nature alike, Tiger Woods captured his 13th major here at a scorched Southern Hills, leaving but a single question: What date are you taking in the pool?

Congressional for the 2011 U.S. Open? How about going bold and Augusta in 2010? Or maybe a more conservative pick, 2011 PGA in Atlanta? Or, quite fittingly, St. Andrews, July 2010?

Tiger Woods, 31, is going to equal and then surpass Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major championships. Now, maybe more than ever, it is about when, not if.

His fourth PGA Championship victory moved him one closer to the record, a chase that should dominate the sport's attention over the next two, three, maybe four years, at most.

He has won 13 times in 44 majors as a professional (Nicklaus won 11 in his first 44). If Woods maintains that pace, you had better get your tickets right now to the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco – just up the road from Stanford, where Woods went to school – because that's when he's going to tie it.

Except it won't take that long. Like his first name might imply, Woods is at his best when he's about to pounce, about to go for the kill. He tends to refocus, redouble his efforts and leave the rest of the field realizing they never stood a chance.

And there isn't going to be anything Tiger Woods wants more than his 18th major. Except, of course, his 19th.

"Well, when you first start your career, 18 is just a long way away," he said. "And even though I'm at 13, it's still a long way away. You can't get it done in one year.

"It's one of those things where it's going to take some time. And hopefully health permitting and everything goes right and I keep improving, that I'll one day surpass that."

That's a nice, humble sentiment, but the way Woods is playing now, "one day" is going to come one day soon.

If anything, his recent 5-for-22 stretch in majors (starting after his 2002 U.S. Open win at Bethpage Black) may prove to be a slow period in his career. It included dealing with a swing change, some possibly inferior Nike equipment (at least according to Phil Mickelson) and the illness and death of his father.

That's all behind him now. Maybe it's no surprise that in his last six majors he won three times and finished second twice.

Tiger is at the absolute top of his game right now, both physically and mentally. He actually claims he is (gasp) "improving." Asked if he was better than in 2000, he didn't hesitate.

"By far," he said. "Just experience. Understanding how to handle it and how to manage my game around the golf course. I have more shots than I did then just because (he has had) that many more years to learn them. And how to make adjustments on the fly just comes with experience.

"And I'll say the same thing seven years from now – more experienced then than I am now. It makes things a little bit (easier) coming down the stretch.

"You look back then; I hit the ball long, I hit it high (but) didn't really do a lot with the golf ball. I tried to, but I didn't really have an understanding how to just do it."

As he showed this week, there doesn't seem to be a shot he doesn't possess, a challenge he hasn't already faced or an external circumstance he can't overcome.

There are essentially no questions left. People tried to make a big deal that Southern Hills, with its crooked fairways, was Tiger-proof. "I don't understand why people kept saying that," Woods said. They won't again after he shot a major record-tying 63 on Friday and virtually coasted to the title the rest of the way.

And any thought that diaper duty as a new father might rattle him was finished here. He called meeting his wife and baby daughter after the round "more special" than any other celebration, which means, if anything, he now might be more motivated.

The only question is whether he can hit the accelerator and make quick work of this run toward the record and then work on putting it into the stratosphere.

He has plenty of time. Nicklaus won his last major at 46, a thrilling victory at the 1986 Masters. Woods is in far superior physical condition than Nicklaus ever was, and it is nothing to think he can remain an elite competitor until he is, say, 45. Vijay Singh is 44, and he has won twice on the tour this year and is the seventh-ranked golfer in the world. The runner-up here, Woody Austin, is 43.

If he is an elite player until only his 45th birthday, he'll have 52 more chances to win just the five majors needed to tie and six to break Nicklaus' record. Think he can win one out of every 10? Please.

If he were to maintain just his recent pace – five wins in his last 22 majors – he'll wind up with a breathtaking 24 or 25 majors before he turns 46. If he gets better, he may soar past 30.

"I certainly believe there is an art to winning," he said. "I've been in so many different circumstances to try and win championships, to win tournaments, that you start getting a feel how to do it."

About the only thing that could derail him is boredom or, say, pursuit of becoming president of the United States. He may, indeed, one day become president. But this guy never is going to get bored of winning.

Perhaps this is when the charge to the record becomes official. Tiger is close now, a big year from pulling this into his sights. Next year starts beautifully for him, at Augusta, where he seemingly always is in contention, and the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won five times in the last nine years.

History is coming now. Sooner, perhaps, than even Tiger Woods realizes.

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