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How will Tiger Woods' major drought affect his all-time standing?

Tiger Woods has won 14 golf majors but none since 2008. If he doesn't equal or pass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18, how will history treat him?

July 13, 2013|By David Wharton
  • Although he's struggled to win major tournaments the last five years, Tiger Woods has still won 26% of the events he's entered in his 17-plus-year career.
Although he's struggled to win major tournaments the last five years,… (Andrew Redington / Getty…)

The world's top-ranked golfer has a new catchphrase.

Tiger Woods uttered it after falling short at the Masters this spring, and again after playing himself out of contention at the recent U.S. Open.

"Just haven't gotten it done," he said.

Five years have passed since major knee surgery set him back, 31/2 since scandal threw another wrench into his career. A rebuilt swing has put him back on top, but he cannot seem to perform at major championships.

Heading into the British Open this week, Woods hasn't won a major since 2008 and remains stalled in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record. He knows that great golfers are measured by their success in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

"These are the four biggest events . . . the toughest conditions, best fields and the most demanding and challenging," he said this spring. "I mean, that's what you want."

Which raises the question: If he never wins another major — or, at least, falls short of Nicklaus' mark — where will that leave him in golf's all-time pecking order?

"Hard to answer that right now," said Ian Baker-Finch, who won the 1991 British Open and now works as an analyst on CBS Sports telecasts. "There are a couple different ways to think about it."

The majors have long been the gold standard, if only because, as writer and historian Geoff Shackelford says, "It's the easiest thing to count."

Nicklaus leads with 18 titles. Next comes Woods with 14 and Bobby Jones with 13, if you include his U.S. and British amateur championships, which used to count as majors. Walter Hagen won 11 majors, Ben Hogan and Gary Player nine each.

People might forget that, in addition to his wins, Nicklaus finished second in majors a remarkable 19 times, losing out to the likes of Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.

"He was competing against Hall of Fame types," Shackelford said. "We knew we were watching somebody that was doing something special."

But should majors be the only measure of greatness? Golf keeps all sorts of records, many of which Woods will own by the time he retires.

At 37, he already has 78 victories on the PGA Tour — five more than Nicklaus — and seems certain to eclipse Sam Snead's record of 82.

Even more impressive, Woods has won at a 26% clip over 17-plus years on the tour, which means he has finished atop the leaderboard in one of every four tournaments. By comparison, Nicklaus won 12% of the time and Snead finished with a 15% rate.

Need more? Woods has received the Vardon Trophy eight times as the golfer with the season's lowest scoring average. Trevino and Billy Casper come next at five, with Snead and Palmer at four.

"Tiger has done all this at a time when the equipment has brought people closer to his level," Shackelford said. "That makes his achievements pretty remarkable."

Here's another argument in his favor: No one denies that from 2000 through mid-2001, he played some of the most dominant golf in history.

His run included a victory at the 2000 U.S. Open in which he outdistanced the field by 15 strokes. Next came victories at the British and PGA, followed by a Masters title to start 2001.

Overall, Woods won 14 of the 39 PGA Tour events he entered in those two seasons.

"He had everything," Baker-Finch said. "He was, if not the best, then one of the best at every part of the game."

But now, on the other side of his downfall and resurrection, scoring averages and standard tour victories don't seem to tip the historical balance.

"The majors are just the best mark," Shackelford said. "To me, Jack Nicklaus is still the greatest and will continue to be until somebody breaks that record."

Even Woods seems to agree. Asked whether reaching 18 remains important to him, he said: "Yeah, it is. I would like to be able to get to that point."

Most golf insiders believe that, barring another injury, Woods can play another 10 years, so it is too early to suggest he'll never win another major. But obstacles stand in his way.

PGA Tour fields are deeper than ever, even if the top players — including Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy — don't quite match up to the Nicklaus era. Woods has been a victim of his own success.

"I think you're seeing a generation of players that grew up watching Tiger Woods play," Keegan Bradley said. "We've been hearing him talk about winning. That's all he wants to do. I think you've seen younger guys come out on tour ready to win . . . which I don't think may have been the case 20, 30 years ago."

Seventeen golfers have won the last 18 majors, with McIlroy the only two-time champion. During that time, Woods has contended on several occasions, uncharacteristically faltering near the end.

"You need to have a hot week at the right time," he said before last year's British Open. "That's what it comes down to."

His prospects could change dramatically if he finds that rhythm at Muirfield this week. Though he struggled there in 2002, the links course fits his game.

"If he wins, it might just open the floodgates," Baker-Finch said. "It might give him the confidence he needs."

Nineteen majors would remove all doubts. Nicklaus, for one, isn't betting against him.

"Obviously the older he gets and if he doesn't win, it makes my record move out further," Nicklaus said. "But I've said it, and I continue to say it, that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven and too focused on that."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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