It’s looking more as if Tiger Woods will not surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors. The career numbers, which for so long ran overwhelm- ingly in Woods’ favor, are no longer adding up. If Woods
does not win one of the next three majors he plays in, he will
fall behind the pace of Nicklaus—whose victory at the 1978
British Open marked his 15th major championship in 67
major starts as a pro—for the first time since the eve of the
2000 British Open at St. Andrews. If Woods doesn’t win a
major this year, it will mean he will need to win five majors
after the age of 39 to get to 19. In the modern era, Nicklaus,
Ben Hogan and Sam Snead have won the most majors after
turning 39: three each.
But even as the odds of Woods catching Nicklaus lengthen,
they still aren’t as long as the chances of a golfer ever again
being as dominant as Woods.
I don’t doubt a male golfer with as much or even more talent
than Woods will come along. There’s a good chance that person—perhaps a competitor in the inaugural Drive, Chip and
Putt Championship—could already be among us.
But so long as the upper crust of
touring pros can achieve an exceptional lifestyle with merely good but
not great golf, the most promising
players will overwhelmingly decide—
consciously or unconsciously—not to
try to be like Woods.
For a long time now, Woods’ peers,
and especially the best ones, have
been paying close attention to how he
does things and the results achieved. They saw that, yes,
by devoting all his energy and focus to being truly great,
Tiger gained more than any golfer in history in terms of
fame, riches, power and records. But they also noticed,
especially lately, that Woods’ life was anything but an easy
one—seemingly filled with isolation, compulsiveness, loss
of privacy and injury.
And so, those with similar abilities and thus possibilities
have done a cost-benefit analysis. What is the price of true golf
greatness, and what is the return? And a reasonable conclusion could be that it’s simply not worth it to be like Tiger. From
being a model, he’s become a cautionary tale. Instead, the new
model for achieving greatness is Phil Mickelson, who never
was and never will be as good as Woods, but who compromised some of his potential to build a more balanced life.
Such thinking goes against much that has been idealized
by the American sports fan. Woods (and Michael Jordan and
Lance Armstrong) was celebrated for winning ruthlessly
and relentlessly striving for improvement. As Woods often
said, “winning takes care of everything.” It was a mindset
based on the belief that whatever trade-offs might come
from pursuing greatness, they were worth it.
Woods was following (and trying to build on) a tradition
of sacrificing life for golf carried on by intensely dedicated
winners such as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer,
Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman
and Nick Faldo. Some players, like Curtis Strange, burned
so hot they burned out. Part of the genius of Nicklaus
was that while he could be as intense as anyone, he did it
in a selective way that allowed him both longevity and a
No one ever burned hotter than Woods in his prime. It
could be almost frightening, and the complicated aftermath
is a big part of why no top player has appeared to burn anywhere close to that way since.
Instead, today’s emerging best players almost seem
ambivalent about pursuing greatness. It’s understandable.
For today’s effectively “branded” pro, performance is only a
small part of income. Being a mere “star” is more wonderful
than ever, but the unavoidable demands of superstardom
have come to be associated with diminishing returns. It’s
no wonder that the large group of players with the most
horsepower seem hesitant to really step on the gas. Among
this group, close losses don’t seem to hurt as much, and WDs
are more frequent. For them, life is good as golf threatens to
slouch toward yet another prolonged period of parity.
Recently, Rory McIlroy sounded as if he was trying to rally
reluctant volunteers, possibly including himself, when he said,
“I think a few guys need to put their hands up and try and be
dominant players because that’s what people like to see.”
Woods was born with his hand up, which is why—even
hurt and diminished—he has remained by far the most
compelling figure in the sport. If he can somehow show in
his remaining years that going for greatness doesn’t have
to lead to a cautionary tale, there might actually be a next
Tiger Woods. N
Woods’ daunting dominance
What is the price of true golf greatness?
A reasonable conclusion could be that it’s
simply not worth it to be like Tiger. From
being a model, he’s become a cautionary tale.
BY JAIME DIAZ