Tiger Woods will not break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major championships. He’s currently at 14, so he needs five more to surpass Nicklaus.
That may have been a slightly bold claim to make several years ago, perhaps even after Woods’s fourth-place finish at the Masters in April. It appeared that he might be on track to once again dominate the sport. Since then, however, he missed most of the summer with an injury, finished 37th in the Bridgestone Invitational, and missed the halfway cut at the PGA Championship. It may no longer be terribly bold to make this prediction, but I’ll lay out my argument here, anyway.
There are several factors that many have already noted. Woods is not playing very much nor practicing very diligently. He’s admitted as much in interviews. Further, he’s constantly tweaking his swing, which isn’t good. A golfer must be confident as he stands over the ball and Woods is completely lost these days.
There are a few considerations, however, that I’ve heard very little about.
First, golf is completely unlike any other sport in one respect. No matter how hard a golfer works, there’s something mysterious that happens in a golfer’s mid to late 30’s. It’s hard to say just what “it” is, but for some reason, “it” is gone at some point and it’s impossible to find again. It can drive a person mad.
It happened to Ian Baker-Finch. He won the British Open in 1991 and within a few years he completely lost it. He would shoot 65 in a practice round, hit great shots on the range, but then shoot a 90-something and withdraw from the tournament. He famously stepped up to the first tee of the ’95 Open at St. Andrews after playing wonderfully in his practice rounds and hit his first shot into the stands. He retired two years later at 37.
It happened to Tom Watson. He won eight major championships by the time he was 34. But then he got the “yips” and couldn’t sink a three-footer to save his life. He didn’t win another tournament for 14 years and never won another major after winning eight between 1975 and 1983.
It happened to Nick Faldo. He won the Open Championship and then famously re-worked his swing with David Leadbetter. He went on to win two more Opens and three Masters, and played some of the most sublime golf in that era. But in his late thirties he completely lost it, and he nearly lost his mind trying to recover whatever “it” was that he lost.
While everyone has focused on Woods’s swing changes and erratic drives and iron play, that’s not his real problem. Frankly, he’s always been an erratic driver. The one area where he excelled, and surpassed his competitors, was on the green and that’s the one thing that has left him. It’s no surprise. He’s 35. The same thing that has happened to so many great golfers is happening to him, and it’s in the mind.
And when the putting goes, every other part of the game is affected. He no longer has the confidence that he can hit wild drives and still recover with his putting. He can no longer hit risky recovery shots with the confidence that he can make an eight-footer for par. Bad putting is putting pressure on the rest of his game, causing him to second-guess. The mind-games have begun. Not many have come back from that trip down the rabbit-hole.
Second, it’s telling that Woods’s work ethic has slipped so badly. I wonder if he’s lost his desire with all the turmoil in his life. There was always something that didn’t seem quite right to me about Woods’s demeanor when he won. He seldom celebrated after his victories. He seemed relieved. That indicates to me that he’s playing for some other reason than pure love for and enjoyment of the game. Whatever that is, I just wonder if it no longer seems worth it in light of all that he’s lost over the last two years. That’s pure speculation, but I just doubt that he’s got the heart to do what it takes to return to form.
A final consideration is the extreme difficulty of winning five more major championships. If a golfer wins one or two in a career, that’s a huge success. Aside from Woods, only 17 other golfers in the last century have won more than five major championships. The list of golfers not among that group is very impressive. For Woods to surpass Nicklaus requires that he match that feat, and do so while being diminished by injury, frustrated at the state of his game, and distracted by business ventures and family issues.
Frankly, I would love to see him do it. The pursuit of the big records in sports is always riveting. Even more, however, I would just love to see Woods get to the point where he actually enjoys the game. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but I’m pretty sure Nicklaus’s record is safe.