Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tiger Stalks History

Tiger Woods is not playing against the golf course. Tiger Woods is not playing against Phil Mickelson or Rory Sabbatini or Sergio Garcia or anyone else who imagines, pretends or dreams that Woods is "beatable." Tiger Woods is playing against history--and right now it looks like he can give history a stroke a side and still win.

On Sunday afternoon, Woods held off Woody Austin and Ernie Els to win the PGA Championship, Woods' fourth PGA title and 13th career major, second all-time to Jack Nicklaus' 18. Woods won his first major at age 21, while Nicklaus was 22 when he won his first major--and Woods has picked up the pace since then, capturing his fifth major at 24 (Nicklaus was 26) and his 10th major at 29 (Nicklaus was 32). Nicklaus won his 13th major at 35, so Woods, 31, is now a full four years ahead of Nicklaus' pace. Woods' contemporaries are not even worth mentioning in this discussion; Woods has won more career majors than all of the other players in the world top ten rankings combined.

This kind of dominance is why it is at once humorous and revealing when you hear someone talking--really, it's more like hoping--about Woods being "beatable." Yes, in theory anyone is beatable but Woods never says that about his opposition because he has so much experience beating them that it would be redundant to talk about it. If Will Smith were still rapping the former "Fresh Prince" could do a remake of his I think I can Beat Mike Tyson single, changing the lyrics to focus on Sabbatini, Garcia and other golfers who talk about beating Woods but have about as much chance of doing so as Smith had of beating Tyson in the late 1980s.

Beating Woods when he has his "A" game simply does not happen. Woods has never lost a tournament when he has gone into the final round with a lead of more than one stroke and he is now 13-0 in majors when he has had at least a share of the lead going into the last round. As I mentioned last month, these kind of numbers illustrate the difference between winners and champions. All of the players on the PGA Tour are winners but Woods, like Nicklaus before him, is a champion, someone who can contend even when he is not at his best and who wins when he is on form.

Woods grabbed this PGA Championship by the throat in the second round, tying an all-time majors record by shooting a 63, coming within a putt that rolled in and out of posting a number that is every bit as magical to golf as 61 or 755 used to be--and perhaps still are--to baseball. As some commentators have noted, though, Woods' game plan these days does not frequently involve putting up devastating, record-breaking victory margins like he did a few years back. His game has evolved and matured to the point that he is perfectly content to get a small lead and nurse it to victory. Someone compared it to Dean Smith's old "four corners" offense or a football team running out the clock. Still, Woods' performance in this year's four majors was very impressive overall--a career year for just about anyone else: one first, two second place ties and a tie for 12th. His aggregate score in those events is -1 and he is the only player who made the cut in all four events to shoot under par overall.

The only possible roadblock in front of Woods is injury. If he does not suffer a serious injury then by the time he is 35 or 36 he will break Nicklaus' record while still having some prime years in front of him. Nicklaus won his last major at 46 but he had not won a major for nearly six years prior to that. If Woods passes Nicklaus at 35 he probably could still win a major or two a year until he is 40 and then perhaps win one or two more after that--which means that a previously unthinkable total of 25 major wins is not out of the question. It is also possible that Woods, a fitness fanatic, may age better than previous golfers, so unless there is some 12 or 13 year old phenom who will be hitting his stride about a decade from now Woods could transition smoothly from being the youngest golfer to reach various milestones to being the oldest golfer to stay at the top of the sport and win majors.

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