Major-hunting Tiger Woods leaves rivals quaking as he closes in on Jack Nicklaus' record

James Corrigan
The Telegraph
Next up is the US PGA Championship in four weeks' time - Getty Images North America
Next up is the US PGA Championship in four weeks' time - Getty Images North America

With Jack Nicklaus admitting “I’m shaking in my boots” and Brooks Koepka quivering “I think he will now get to 18”, Tiger Woods clearly has both the past and the future worried. Yet in terms of the here and now, golf cannot wait for the next major in four weeks’ time.

Thank goodness for the change of schedule. If the US PGA Championship had not been brought forward from August to May, then there would be more than two months to come to terms with the 43-year-old’s Masters resurrection and intensely analyse where the greatest comeback story sport has ever told goes from here.

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As it is, it heads so quickly to Long Island – via a stop in North Carolina – for the season’s second major and from there to California for the US Open and then to Northern Ireland for the Open. It is full steam ahead for the Tiger Train.

Nicklaus, bless him, has provided plenty of puff to power the hype engine.

The 79-year-old was out fishing in the Bahamas on Sunday when he heard what was transpiring at Augusta and he rushed back to his holiday residence to watch Woods land the big one. The hunter feels like the hunted again.

Nicklaus is on 18 majors, Woods 15. After 11 dormant years, let the chase recommence.

“I felt for a long time he was going to win again,” Nicklaus said. “And, you know, the next two majors are at Bethpage, where he’s won, and Pebble Beach, where he’s won. So he’s got me shaking in my boots, guys.”

Except it is not just that Woods “won” at Bethpage, at the 2002 US Open, and at Pebble Beach, at the 2000 edition, that is making a 2019 hat-trick from the heavens seem at the very least possible – it is how he prevailed on those occasions.

At Bethpage, he assumed the lead in the first round and barely broke sweat as he took a four-shot advantage by the third round and strolled in by three shots.

Two years before, there was no perspiration whatsoever in his 15-shot cruise at Pebble Beach, still a record margin in the 159 years of the major championships. In both cases, Woods has not only been there and done it – he has been there and demolished it. And with a fifth Green Jacket in his locker, who is to say the good ol’ Tiger days will not be replayed?

Well, anyone with an understanding of the modern game will.

Padraig Harrington was urging caution – “this doesn’t mean he’ll start winning every week” – and the savvy Irishman was correct to point out that the nature of his one-shot glory over Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele was unlike the Woods waltzes of yore.

In his 14 previous major victories, he had always led or shared the lead going into the final round. This was different; this was not Mr Dominance Mark II, as Woods himself told his friend Mark O’Meara before the third round it would not be. “I asked Tiger, ‘What’s the game plan?’,” O’Meara, the two-time major champion, revealed. “He said, ‘To just keep plodding along, Mo. Plodding along’.”

To be honest, it was some plod and the rich emotion of the scenes on the 18th demands that prudence goes out of the clubhouse window. Even Woods’s guarded caddie, Joe LaCava, is prepared to play the speculation game. “Now 15’s here, let’s get to 16. But is it [the record] in play? Sure. The guy’s 43, a guy like him could win when they’re 50.

“This has been coming a long time, lot of question marks, lot of injuries. I think looking back 10 years from now, 15 may have been the hardest one.”

Rickie Fowler declared similar, while Koepka is adamant. “This is definitely one of the greatest comebacks anybody’s ever seen,” the world No 3 said. “Fifteen is down and I believe 18 is a whole lot closer than people think.”

Woods believed it last year after watching his friend Roger Federer continue his own astonishing rebirth with the Australian Open title.

“I believe this is the resumption of one of the greatest chases in sport,” John Cook, his friend and former PGA Tour winner said. “Tiger told me after Roger won the Aussie Open, ‘I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could do it like him. I’m not here to ceremonially walk through to the end of my career’.”

By then, Woods, now world No 6, was on the climb back up from 1,199th, having been stunned by the transformation of the spinal fusion in April 2017. Without a coach, he fashioned a swing around his physical limitations. “Granted it doesn’t look anything near like it used to be – it is different, but it works,” Woods said. “I’ve figured out a way to piece together a swing and, on top of that, I know how to score. 

“The hard part is I can’t work on my game like I used to and, because of that, peaking for big events is a challenge. But I proved to myself last year [when coming sixth at the Open and second at the US PGA] that I could do that. 

Notah Begay, the former PGA Tour player and a close friend and former team-mate of Woods at Stanford University, revealed Woods refused to contemplate retiring. “The one telling thing to me was that he never wanted to talk about the end,” he said.

His first stop is not yet official, but it is an open secret he will appear at the Wells Fargo Championship in two weeks’ time, meaning Quail Hollow Country Club will be full to bursting. Everyone, golf fan or not, will want to see what Paul Azinger, the former US Ryder Cup captain, called “this walking living miracle”. O’Meara is sure his “buddy” will not let them down.

“The sky’s the limit again, so long as he doesn’t push it, but he knows how to control his practice sessions,” O’Meara said. “As Jack has pointed out, Tiger’s won at Bethpage, he’s won at Pebble Beach and he’s going to be the heavy favourite at both of them and there will be all sorts of expectation thrown his way in the mean time – beating Jack’s record, saving the sport etc. But Tiger can handle that heat.”

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