Ahead of Tiger's seasonal return, Romilly Evans looks at Woods' gradual return to greatness and asks if he could still better Jack Nicklaus' record haul of majors
"When it comes to majors, Nicklaus is Tiger’s only rival. A rival who lives next door to him, almost mocking him with the better-looking wife, the faster car, the bigger house."
They say it's good to get out while you're still doing your best work. Tiger Woods doesn't subscribe to that theory. He subscribes to the outstay-your-welcome-until-it-gets-sad-and-desperate theory. Keep those cheques coming in.
Now admittedly, Tiger's "sad and desperate" stage isn't too shabby. And neither are those cheques. Woods stands alone as sport's first billionaire, still ranked number one in the world, and on the threshold of overtaking Sam Snead's supposedly unassailable mark of 82 PGA Tour victories.
In fact, he could even clock up win number 80 this week on his regular seasonal bow at Torrey Pines for which he is a prohibitively priced 3.7511/4-to-back jolly. But there's only one historic landmark in golfing annals, which gets Woods out of bed in the morning, stops him going off and joining the Navy Seals, or making repeated roadtrips to the bright lights of Vegas. And that, of course, is Jack Nicklaus' record tally of 18 major titles.
In life, relative values are the big motivator, the real driver of fierce competition between people. After all, you're more likely to be jealous of a neighbour or a peer. And when it comes to major championships, Nicklaus is Tiger's only rival. A rival who lives next door to him, almost mocking him with the better-looking wife, the faster car, the bigger house.
Time was when it simply seemed a matter of time as to when Woods would get the planning permission to consign Nicklaus' 18 towers to the shadows. Yet Tiger has remained rooted on 14 majors since 2008, his designs for a major extension consistently denied by the golfing council. The house that Jack built still looms, putting his garden in the shade and robbing the roses of sunlight.
It only took Woods a decade to get to 14. Now, however, frequent frustration at being unable to close out the tournaments which define golf's greatest is beginning to weigh heavy. He got his trousers down quickly, then tripped when they were around his ankles. Tiger never used to have such problems getting into bed.
The walk-on-water days (2000) of the man his father labelled the next messiah are but a distant memory. Never mind turning water into wine, Woods struggles to turn a bogey into a par on the back nine of a Sunday slam. Despite putting himself in the major mix over the past five years (nine top-sixes), Woods has just discovered new ways to lose. He famously won his last US Open on one dodgy leg. Now he's wobbling on two good ones.
If Tiger needs stability, at least he is likely to find it in this corner of California. His victory at the Farmers' Insurance Open last season made him the first player in Tour history to have triumphed at the same course eight times. And that doesn't even include Woods' multiple wins at Torrey during his junior days. In short, it's his home track, with all the warm and fuzzies that go hand-in-hand with dragging your favourite bear up the wooden hill to bed.
Other events Woods could win in his sleep on the annual rota include Muirfield Village (The Memorial, five-time-winner), Bay Hill (Arnie Palmer Invitational, eight-time-winner) and Firestone (WGC Bridgestone, another eight). Indeed, considering he normally goes off very short for the majors, you could argue (indeed, Paul Krishnamurty eloquently does) that he's always better value for these other four tentpole events - Tiger's mini-majors, if you will - which he invariably uses as a springboard to golf's ultimate tests.
For that reason, the 38-year-old appears far more attractive at 3.7511/4 to back for the Farmers than he does for, say, the Masters where he's only 6.511/2 to back against a field stacked with all-stars. Then again, if you're in the business of doubting Tiger's credentials, plenty will flock to the 1.564/7 on the game's top cat enduring another majorless campaign.
However, that hardly represents a decent get-rich-quick strategy. Tiger has been sowing the seeds of recovery in his play (finally mastering the fifth different swing of his career) and he should reap a harvest soon. Sure, he's drained from suffering major disappointment of all colours recently. However, after the rain comes the rainbow. And Woods will fancy his chances of ending the drought at either Augusta (four previous victories), Pinehurst (second and third before), Hoylake (one) or Valhalla (one) - stages for this year's Big Four.
Talent and luck will get you so far in this world. But you need the old-fashioned one too, I'm afraid: hard work. Woods has all three commodities in spades. Digging under Nicklaus' 18-storey property may have been strictly prohibited, but Tiger could still get that necessary planning permission to complete his major extension.
Some of his best work may yet lie ahead of him.