Jack Nicklaus awoke for the final round of the 1986 Masters smack dab in the middle of a log jam. At age 46, he was tied with six other golfers for ninth place, four shots behind Greg Norman. There was no reason to consider him a legit contender.
He went out and shot a 65, powered by a back-nine 30, to charge up the board (Norman shot a 70) and win his 18th and final major championship.
It remains one of the most famous and celebrated victories in the sport’s history, Jack raising his putter after a birdie on 17 serving as his most iconic image.
On Sunday, Tiger Woods shot a 64 and wound up second at the PGA Championship. It was thrilling. It was riveting, particularly because of Woods’ recent injuries and off-course difficulties.
“I never quite got the lead,” Tiger said. “I was always trailing.”
The question as everyone waits for the 2019 Masters to provide the next major possibility is whether Sunday in St. Louis will be remembered as a build-up to Tiger breaking through for the first time in over a decade, or the near miss that never comes again.
The 2018 season of Tiger Woods was one of his most remarkable. Few saw him doing much considering he had barely played for two years, was still trying to make spinal fusion surgery work, and in May 2017 he’d been arrested in Florida on suspicion of driving under the influence. When the toxicology report discovered a five-drug combo, including hydrocodone and Xanax, it spoke to significant issues.
And yet he led last month’s British Open on Sunday’s back nine and nearly pulled off a final-round charge in the PGA that, numerically at least, was greater than Jack’s.
“I didn’t know when I was going to start this year and how many tournaments I was going to play, how well I was going to play,” Tiger said. “I didn’t know what swing I was going to use either. I’m in uncharted territory. Because no one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it.
“So, I had to kind of figure this out on my own and it’s been really hard. It’s a lot harder than people think. And I’m just very pleased at what I’ve done so far and now to be part of the Ryder Cup conversation, going from where I’ve come from to now in the last year, it’s been pretty cool.”
It’s been more than cool. It’s given golf a needed shot in the arm. It’s reignited passion with fans who faded away. It’s spiked television ratings and turned galleries into something out of Cameron Indoor. “The energy was incredible,” Tiger said.
Can he really win one more though? Or even more after that?
Tiger turns 43 in December. The back, the neck, the knees, they all remain a concern that could turn terrible at any moment. Whatever brought about the night on the side of the road in Florida has apparently been addressed. Legally he got a diversion program. Personally, with Tiger, you never know.
By making multiple runs at a major this year, it’s clear Tiger isn’t yet at the “fluke” point of his career. He was the only golfer to tee off in the final three groups of the British and PGA. He hit his 64 Sunday without a great driver and with a number of near-miss putts – most notably on 11.
That his return to winning majors is even being discussed remains incredible. In the 19 majors that span from the 2013 PGA thru the 2018 U.S. Open, Tiger didn’t enter 10 times, missed the cut five times and never finished better than tied for 17th. He was no one. Now he’s someone again.
That said, you either win these or you don’t. Nicklaus has the all-time record with 18 major championships. He also was runner-up 19 times. Tiger has seven silvers.
You really only get so many chances, and for Tiger, there is a very strong field of players who are in the way, most notably a slew of young guys who grew up watching and idolizing him. It’s not just the bigger names either, Rory McIlroy (29) Justin Spieth (25) or even Dustin Johnson (34).
Brooks Koepka (28) won his second major this year and third overall. Patrick Reed, 28, won the Masters this year. Justin Thomas was 24 when he won the 2017 PGA. There are times Tiger can only shrug at their games, which feature lengthy drives. He once tortured older pros with his driver. Now it’s come full circle.
“[Koepka’s] a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air … 320 in the air’s like a chip shot,” Tiger said. “And so that’s the new game. Dustin’s done it, now Rory’s doing it, Brooksy does it, and you get on a golf course like this, this soft, and you can just bomb it away. Those guys, if they’re driving it well, they have such a huge advantage because of the carry.”
It’ll take near perfect golf from Tiger Woods to win a major. There is just too much competition. There is just too little margin for error. There is just too much pressure on each and every swing.
A final-round 64 wasn’t enough. It’s the difference between the 1986 Masters being legendary and the 2018 PGA being, well, we don’t know yet.
A preamble to glory? Or the final grasp at it?
Eight months until Augusta. Eight months until everyone watches, and wonders, again.
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