State of the Game: His Quest for 19
Some Predictions Are Better Than Others
When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by a mile and made Augusta National look like a pitch-and-putt course, Jack Nicklaus forecast that Woods would win as many Masters as he and Arnold Palmer put together: 10. Well, after landing his fifth Masters title a year ago, Tiger is only halfway there.
When Tiger won the 1995 U.S. Amateur Championship at Newport CC, the second of three consecutive U.S. Amateur victories, Earl Woods predicted his son would win 14 professional majors. Earl’s prediction was eerily right on the money for more than a decade. Tiger notched No. 14 at Torrey Pines in 2008, then stalled for 11 years until last April’s Augusta Surprise.
It has always seemed odd that Earl aimed so low, since he understandably loved to brag about his son. Why didn’t he say 18 majors, tying the iconic mark set by Nicklaus?
We’ll never know. Just like we’ll never know what’s in Tiger’s head. We know he grew up with a magazine chart on his bedroom wall that chronicled Nicklaus’ wins at benchmark ages, plus his major championships.
And we know that Tiger is as competitive as any golfer who has ever lived. So I’m sure Tiger’s goal is not to merely tie Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships. Nobody plays for a tie. He wants to beat Jack.
So here’s the big question for this new decade: Why not 19?
Why not, indeed. I am not predicting Tiger will get to 19 major championships. But after his 2019 Masters win, after tying Sam Snead’s all-time victory total of 82 by winning in Japan last fall, and after being the man most observers agreed was the best player on the course in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, I see a possible path for Tiger to reach 18 majors, 19 or even beyond.
That is if, and only if, Tiger’s back holds together. At 44, that’s a big if.
Also, the likes of Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and others will have plenty to say about Tiger challenging golf’s greatest milestone.
SO I’M SURE TIGER’S GOAL IS NOT TO MERELY TIE NICKLAUS’ MARK OF 18 MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS. NOBODY PLAYS FOR A TIE. HE WANTS TO BEAT JACK.”
Let’s begin with the next four Masters. There is no question that Tiger can still win a Masters. He just did. Since he seems ordained to break every notable golf record, doesn’t history demand that he win two more Masters? That would get him to seven, surpassing Nicklaus, who won six.
Beyond the Masters, the majors schedule for these next three years features venues where Tiger has amassed a dozen victories and a few near-misses.
First up this year is August’s PGA Championship at San Francisco’s Harding Park. Tiger won a World Golf Championship tournament there in 2005, beating John Daly in a playoff.
Winged Foot, September’s U.S. Open host, would turn into the Winged Foot Zoo. However, Tiger doesn’t have much positive history there. He tied for 29th in the 1997 PGA Championship and missed the cut at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open. Tiger’s game was rusty that week because he’d taken nine weeks off following the death of his father.
Let’s say Tiger lands one major in 2020. That gets him to 16.
In 2021, there’s another Masters, followed by a PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, where he finished 11th in the 2012 PGA. Then the U.S. Open returns to Torrey Pines, a course where Woods has won eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open playoff with Rocco Mediate. Tiger, therefore, would have to be in a wheelchair not to be the favorite at Torrey Pines. Since he won that Open despite micro-fractures in his leg, a wheelchair might only slow him down a little.
The 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s looks like a better opportunity. In the 2003 Open there, Woods was 1 shot off the lead going to the 71st hole. He left his approach short, played a poor chip that raced 12 feet past and made bogey, one of three back-nine bogeys that kept him from catching winner Ben Curtis. Woods tied for fourth, but even despite a bad week with the putter — by his standards — he had a chance. So he’s familiar with Royal St. George’s.
In the 2021 lineup, Tiger could possibly win two more majors and get to 18.
In 2022, there’s another big red circle on the schedule. It’s not the PGA Championship, to be played in New Jersey at Trump Bedminster. It’s also not the U.S. Open at The Country Club in Massachusetts, where the American team staged a famous Ryder Cup rally in 1999.
The summer of 2022 ends at St Andrews’ Old Course. That’s like serving up a chest-high fastball to Barry Bonds. Tiger won Opens there in 2000 and 2005 in dominating fashion.
That title would be record-breaking No. 19. Of course, golf forecasting is not this simple. If it were, I’d be living in a Las Vegas penthouse. I live in Pittsburgh, which is just like Vegas except for … everything.
Tiger passing Jack’s record is still the longest of long shots. History records the past. It doesn’t predict the future. The 2020 Tiger, though still pretty good, isn’t the 2007 Tiger. And he’ll have to win four more majors in his mid-40s. That’s unprecedented.
If he somehow gets to 19 majors, it will be the greatest of his many great accomplishments. It will also reinforce 19’s status as an iconic number in golf. Why? Because 19 is how many times Nicklaus finished runner-up in major championships.