All eyes on Woods as he targets back-to-back majors

Woods targets 16th major to edge closer to Jack Nicklaus's record tally

For the second major in succession, membership of golf’s most elite club is up for grabs in the US PGA Championship at Bethpage, where Jordan Spieth seeks the victory he needs to complete the career grand slam.

Tiger Woods won his 15th major title in the 2019 Masters
Tiger Woods won his 15th major title in the 2019 Masters (Matt Slocum/AP)

But all eyes will once again be on the last man to join that club as Tiger Woods targets back-to-back major titles and the 16th of his career to edge closer to Jack Nicklaus’s record tally of 18.

That record looked out of sight two years ago as Woods needed a nerve block simply to attend the Champions Dinner before the 2017 Masters, where he told Nicklaus “I’m done” after three operations had failed to solve chronic back problems.

Later that night Woods flew to London to see a specialist and subsequently underwent the spinal fusion surgery which saved his career.

But, the following month, with five prescription drugs in his system, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence when he was found asleep at the wheel of his car and later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

Woods spent 11 months on probation but returned to competitive golf at the end of November and the results soon followed, most notably when he led the Open Championship with eight holes to play at Carnoustie and then finished runner-up in the US PGA.

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The 43-year-old went on to win the season-ending Tour Championship and then of course came last month’s unforgettable Masters triumph, 14 years after his last win at Augusta National and 11 since his most recent major in the 2008 US Open.

After opting not to contest the Wells Fargo Championship, Woods will not have played competitively between the Masters and US PGA and concerns were raised about his fitness when he was filmed walking gingerly on his way to a television interview.

“Nobody should lose their mind over this,” his agent Mark Steinberg insisted, although there will be thousands of fans noisily losing theirs over the prospect of Woods winning for the second time on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island.

It was there in the 2002 US Open that Woods led from start to finish on a public course which warns visitors that it is “extremely difficult” and recommended “only for highly skilled golfers”, his three-under-par total making him the only man to break par.

He was also sixth in the same event when it returned in 2009 but will not have such fond memories of his last visit in 2012 after aggravating knee and back injuries en route to a tie for 38th at The Barclays.

At that point Spieth was still four months from starting a professional career which brought almost instant success, the 25-year-old winning on the PGA Tour in his debut season and going to claim the Masters and US Open in 2015 before missing out on a play-off for the Open by a single shot.

Two years later Spieth got his hands on the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale to complete the third leg of the career grand slam, but that remains his last victory to date and the former world number one dropped to 34th after finishing 21st in the Masters – his worst finish ever at Augusta.

Rivals to Woods are therefore more likely to come from elsewhere and a 7,436-yard par-70 is set to favour long hitters like defending champion Brooks Koepka, world number one Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who was unable to complete his own career grand slam at Augusta.

McIlroy was 20 years old and playing just his third major in the 2009 US Open, but finished in a tie for 10th after a closing 68, a score beaten only by Ian Poulter’s 67.

His performances on the same course in The Barclays in 2012 and 2016 were nothing to write home about and the Northern Irishman knows his long game will need to be better than it was at Augusta, where he ranked 58th for driving accuracy.

Woods ranked only slightly higher at 47th but accuracy was never his strongest suit and none of the sold-out crowd at Bethpage will care about such statistics if the first US PGA to be staged in May since 1949 ends with Woods celebrating more improbable major glory.