When Tiger Woods captured his 3rd US Open in June 2008 in a thrilling playoff victory over Rocco Mediate the likelihood the 32-year-old would be winning additional major championships appeared a foregone conclusion. In just over 11 years in playing professional golf Woods had won 14. Given that record setting pace — passing the record of 18 major wins by Jack Nicklaus — seemed a near certainty.
So much for certainty.
It took Woods just under 11 years to claim his 15th with his 5th victory at The Masters last April. A series of surgeries, infidelity scandals, and an arrest for being under the influence of alcohol and drugs pushed the world’s premier sportsman off the rails.
Today is Tiger’s birthday and at 44 he faces daunting odds. Winning a series of majors is still doable, however, given the track record all of the previous elite players have faced when reaching that age the odds are considerably against that happening. Even adding one additional major would be a spectacular achievement. Nonetheless, throughout his career, Woods has clearly shown the capacity to attain what others have never been able to achieve.
The majors have long been the sine qua non in determining golf royalty. When obituaries are written the key element regularly cited in the opening paragraph is the impact the player had in the sport and that standing comes solely from what transpired with one’s participation in claiming golf’s major events. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, “it’s all about majors kid – the rest is conversation.”
But winning majors can prove elusive even when current form suggests otherwise. With only four opportunities each year the desire to snare one of the titles brings increased public and media attention along with the related scrutiny. There’s also the self-imposed demons on being able to go beyond previous comfort zones and whether frail psyches can handle what is required both physically and more importantly mentally. As quickly as major championship champagne can pop from the bottle it’s just as possible for the spigot to go quickly dry — often permanently.
Consider the plight of Arnold Palmer. The King won his fourth and final Masters in 1964 by six shots. Leaving Georgia, the 34-year-old had won seven majors, was on top of the golfing world and with a future beckoning with more such majors happening.
Although Palmer came close in a few such events in the years to follow — his dominance was actually behind him. In winning his final Masters no one would have predicted his previous winning ways at the highest of levels would be forever in the rear view mirror. The hardest reality was for Arnie to fully comprehend that while he was King in name — his reign on the course was over.
Fast forward to Palmer’s European rival in terms of charisma — Seve Ballesteros. The Spaniard played brilliantly in the final round of The Open Championship in 1988 finishing with a stellar 65 and claiming his 3rd title in the storied event. For the 31-year old it appeared additional majors would be part of the mixture.
Like Palmer — Seve left Royal Lytham not only with the famed Claret Jug but once again stood at the apex as golf’s best player. More majors would soon follow – right?
Ballesteros did win other lesser tournaments but his overall total of five majors would forever remain his final tally.
One of Seve’s chief rivals was Greg Norman. The Great White Shark burst onto the international stage with a top five finish in the 1981 Masters. In 1986, the Aussie did what no one had ever done previously — have the 3rd round lead in all four of that year’s major events. However, Greg’s batting average was a mere .250 in winning just The Open at Turnberry.
Norman would also suffer some of the most inexplicable misfortunes through the miraculous play of others. In the final major of 1986 — the PGA Championship at Inverness — Bob Tway birdied the final hole out of a front bunker and with that took home the Wannamaker Trophy.
Eight months later Norman appeared on the cusp in claiming his first green jacket at Augusta National but in a three-way playoff that included Ballesteros and Larry Mize — it was Mize holing out a long greenside pitch shot that once again harpooned the Shark. Interestingly, Norman would inexplicably re-emerge at the ’08 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and have a two-shot lead going into the final round at age 53 before succumbing to winner Padraig Harrington.
Norman’s stellar play during his competitive days was outstanding — holding down a then record 331 consecutive weeks as golf’s top player. But when the final tally of majors is counted — the Sharks sports a toothless total of just a mere two.
Going into 2020 Rory McIlroy — golf’s number two ranked player — is looking to resurrect his presence in the majors. It’s hard to imagine that the Ulsterman made a sprint like effort when getting his professional career going — claiming four majors including two in one season in 2014 by the age of 25. To top matters off — Rory became only the 3rd player to win four majors before turning 26.
Like the other champions previously mentioned — it appeared McIlroy was on the fast track to getting to double digit majors in a career. What’s happened on the major front since that win at Vahalla?
Zero. Nada. Nil.
McIlroy is well aware that even with an outstanding record of consistency in 2019 — earning him PGA Tour player-of-the-year honors — it’s crucial that now in the peak of his career to bag his 5th and doing so at The Masters would be a double bonus in having him join golf’s ultimate elite fraternity — just the 6th golfer winning a career Grand Slam.
The storybook ending Jack Nicklaus achieved in claiming his 18th and final major title at age 46 in winning his 6th Masters is the rarest of situations. But such a feat could have been bested when eight-time major winner Tom Watson nearly capped his superlative career with a triumph that would have been among the all-time achievements in any sport — winning The Open Championship at an unheard of 59-years of age. It was not to be but the premise spouted by certain players that majors are just another tournament usually comes from the ignorant mouths of those who have never won one.
The press-created tagline, “best player to have never won a major,” is the ultimate compliment wrapped around a clear insult. Good enough to merit discussion but not good enough to finally reach the promise land. One need only ask Colin Montgomerie about this sobriquet. Ditto the 31-year-old Rickie Fowler, who despite his winning personality and stacks of money from off-course commercial endeavors, is also looking to get the moniker forever off his shoulders. Fortunately, Phil Mickelson was able to shed that distinction but only doing so after reaching age 33 in winning the 2004 Masters.
The fear that the next major may never take hold is rarely publicly acknowledged but for three-time winner Jordan Spieth the specter of having had his best days behind him as a 26-year-old is certainly not so readily dismissed since his last win anywhere came at The Open in 2017. The same can equally be said of Dustin Johnson — a man who has won at least one PGA Tour title in his first 12 seasons — a mark only surpassed by the likes of Woods and Nicklaus. The 35-year-old Johnson has won 20 times on the PGA Tour, attained the 5th longest reign as the game’s premier player yet only has the 2016 US Open title as a major accomplishment., His inability to match his prodigious skills in the biggest of events have led many to believe he is certainly on one list — golf’s greatest underachievers.
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For Brooks Koepka, the number one player in the world. and winner of four major titles since 2017, the 29-year-old is now at a point in his career where his overall standing can ascend among the all-time golf listing of players. The key is being able to maintain his sheer dominance in playing his finest when the stakes are at their highest.
As the history of the game has demonstrated — past performance — while certainly something of importance — can never be presumed to be a guarantee of future outcomes.
Watching Woods comeback in returning to the pinnacle in golf with his 15th major has had many presume his chase of the Nicklaus record of 18 is now resumed in earnest. Of course, the leap from 15 to 18 does require securing numbers 16 and 17 first. But bear in mind — no pun intended on Jack — what happened to Palmer and Ballesteros can easily cross over to Woods. Thereby leaving the shining moment where Woods extended his two arms high into the air after holing his final putt the final scene etched in the memory banks.
As 2019 fades into the history books — a new year is nearly upon us. The storylines for 2020 will be most interesting to watch. Is Woods able to add to his herculean total? Can Rory add to his story? Does King Koepka remain on the throne? Greatness neither comes cheap nor easy but immortality in the pantheon of the game comes with two irrefutable points —
- Majors matter.
- Players who matter win majors.
Continued relevance comes goes beyond resting on past laurels. Like time and tide which wait for no man — the magic and mystery of the majors is clearly golf ultimate proving ground. Seizing the moment in 2020 for any of the top players will dictate not only their current standing in the game, but more than likely their overall placement in history.