In the 10 days that I’ve been in Jupiter, Fla., a few people have asked me the burning golf question of the day: “How’s Tiger doing?” the corollary being the continuing theme of whether he will tie and then surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. Woods will turn 37 on Dec. 30th, not old in golf but not the age after which one would expect to win five more majors. He needs that many to overtake Nicklaus, which has been his goal pretty well since he learned of Nicklaus’s achievement.
Woods, of course, hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, when he was 32 years old. He was in obvious pain when he won that championship in a playoff over Rocco Mediate, and soon had knee surgery. Then, in Nov. 2009, his personal life blew up for all the world to see.
While Woods has hardly been the dominant golfer he was for so long, almost from the moment he turned pro in Aug. 1996, he did have a very good campaign this year. He won three PGA Tour events, and each was significant: The Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, the Memorial on June 1, and the AT&T National, which he hosts, two months later.
Woods has moved up to third in the world rankings, with Luke Donald second and Rory McIlroy first. He finished second on the PGA Tour’s money list, behind McIlroy. He tied for 40th in the Masters, for 21st in the U.S. Open, finished third in the Open Championship, and tied for 11th at the PGA Championship. Not vintage Woods, nothing like he wanted, but again, hardly terrible.
Most any golfer, with the likely exception of McIlroy, would consider a season such as the one Woods had nothing short of excellent. After all, he won those three notable PGA Tour events. But Woods is not any other golfer. He’s after majors, and Nicklaus’s record. They remain his benchmarks.
Anybody who follows Woods knows he hasn’t putted nearly as well as when he was winning majors. In particular, he’s been vulnerable on putts inside 10-feet, which used to be just about automatic for him – absurd as it is to even say that. He hasn’t had precise distance control with his short irons, another feature of the game when he was dominant, so dominant that it seemed there was Woods and then there was everybody else. McIlroy, as exceptional a golfer as he is, isn’t there. Yet. He could very well get there.
Meanwhile, Woods continues to work closely with his swing coach Sean Foley in an effort to tighten up his game. He believes he can still win majors, not that one would expect him to say anything else publicly.
“I figure it’s going to take a career,” Woods said prior to the PGA Championship in August about breaking Nicklaus’s record. “It’s going to take a long time. Jack didn’t finish his run until he was 46, so if you go by that timetable, I have 10 more years. Four more majors is a lot but I’ve got plenty of time. With the training regimes that we have now and seeing other guys play well, you can get on the right golf course and contend. We can play late in our careers because of our training and also getting the right golf course.”
Woods then had that T-11 in the last major of the year. The next month, he was 0-3-1 for his U.S. side as Europe overcame a four-point deficit in the Sunday singles to win the Ryder Cup. Woods was bloodied, and accepted blame for the U.S. loss.
“Certainly I’m responsible for that,” Woods said, “because I didn’t earn the points that I was put out there for.”
Truly, however, no one player is ever responsible for a team losing the Ryder Cup. It’s a team event. Woods is of course responsible for when he doesn’t win an individual tournament. The question as he approaches his 37th birthday and the 2013 season is whether what Greg Norman once called the mental “gremlins” have neutralized his formerly superior ability to make something happen when he needed it.
Nick Faldo, for one, thinks it’s over for Woods when it comes to overtaking Nicklaus. Faldo was 39, mind you, when he won the 1996 Masters, the last of his six majors. But Faldo is thinking less about the influence of age than other factors.
“As you get older, the little demons sit on your shoulder,” Faldo told the BBC last month. “You’ve seen one too many bad shots at the wrong time and it starts to eat away at you.”
Woods addressed the upcoming new season in a blog post earlier this week.
“Looking ahead to next year, I’m just trying to win those big four tournaments, and obviously try to use other events to prepare for them and try to win them as well,” he said.
Clearly, Woods still has that one overarching goal of winning majors at the front of his mind. The Masters is less than five months away, and that’s where the former master of the game, and that’s where the winner of four green jackets is looking.
He wants, and expects, to slip on another green jacket Sunday evening at the prize ceremony on the putting green. If defending champion Bubba Watson helps him put the green jacket on there, as is traditional at the Masters, Woods will be back.
And if not, he’ll be looking forward to the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Penn. two months later. The one certainty in Woods’s golf life is that he is all about majors.
What doesn’t seem certain is whether he will pass Nicklaus, or, to be sure, whether he will win even one more major. It’s all about overcoming those demons to which Faldo referred, demons that weren’t part of his vocabulary or experience for a very long time.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein