If, as he stands on the threshold of his 18th full PGA Tour season, Tiger Woods appears shrouded, it is by design.
Guarded as ever and keenly conscious that every step and syllable are scrutinized, Woods remains remarkably consistent – as a golfer, as a person.
Rarely does he play poorly. Even less frequently does he allow a glimpse into his soul or wander from his insular world.
But having turned 38 and his return to No. 1 cemented by a season of domination, Woods quickly halts any suggestion that he is tough to see because he’s masked by a falling twilight.
“I’m going to keep going, and whatever that number is, I’m proud of,” Woods said. “I’m not done yet.”
As sure as red is the Sunday choice, the “number” in question always has been 18 – as in the major-championships record owned by Jack Nicklaus. It generally has been considered the benchmark by which Woods’ career will be judged, but as he has remained stuck on 14 since summer 2008 and his winless skid has reached 18 major starts, another number that has Woods’ attention.
Eighty-two – as in the career-best PGA Tour victories credited to Sam Snead. When Woods makes his 2013-14 PGA Tour debut at the Farmers Insurance Open (Jan. 23-26), he will be only three shy of Snead’s mark, a pursuit to which he increasingly has attached greater significance.
“It is a big deal,” Woods said. “It’s a huge deal, obviously. To win that many tournaments in hopefully less than 20 years, that’s averaging four-plus wins a year. I think that’s a pretty good stat.”
“I don’t think he’ll break Jack’s record,” Hall of Famer Curtis Strange said. “If he ever reads that, he won’t like me at all for that, but I just don’t think he will.
“But let me ask you this: Say he wins 16 or 17 (majors), doesn’t even tie Jack, but he smashes Sam Snead’s record. Is he the greatest?”
Strange, whose 17 Tour titles include back-to-back U.S. Open championships, is confounded by today’s cavalier attitude toward victories. “Why are wins de-valued? It’s hard to win now; there’s a thing called the talent level.”
John Cook doesn’t think Woods has to surpass Nicklaus. “People will point to 18, and that’s a fair argument,” Cook said. “But my argument would be, I’ve seen ’em both and I’ve competed against them when they were at their peak, and as great as Jack was and as great a friend and mentor that he was, nobody struck a golf ball like (Woods); nobody hit golf shots like this guy.”
For his part, Woods said he senses that his career will be assessed differently if he doesn’t at least match Nicklaus’ record. It’s hard to say Woods didn’t play a part in nurturing this mentality. After all, it was a paper listing the accomplishments of Nicklaus, not Snead, that was taped to his bedroom wall in California while growing up.
So Woods can live with the extraordinary expectations, mostly because he professes a peace within. “To have as many wins as I’ve got, it’s something I’m proud of,” he said. Like others in the Woods camp, swing coach Sean Foley has adopted his student’s iron-like ignorance of the critics. “I don’t really care what people think about anything,” Foley said. “I think what I think and let them think what they think. People are allowed to think differently. But I go to bat for (the belief) he will at least tie the major record and he will win at least 100 PGA Tour tournaments.”
Regarding Snead’s record, Cook shrugs. “That one’s inevitable,” he said, and you could travel the PGA Tour from Kapalua to Atlanta and not find anyone who disagrees.
I’m not done yet.
Emphatic words, as if Woods were sending a message – and in a way, he might be. Longtime observers inside PGA Tour circles sense that Woods since the personal-life turmoil is more detached than ever, content to exist within his closed circle of advisers, interested not in winning over friends or Corporate America, only golf tournaments.
“He’s always been about winning,” said a source who has had business dealings with Woods. “But it’s more so now. Only now it’s as if the winning isn’t so much good for him as he knows it’s bad for other people, the people who don’t want to see him win.”
Woods seems more motivated than ever to prove the doubters wrong, but when it comes to the major chase, he still has work to do. In that respect, there are forces working against him and good vibes in his favor.
Working against him: His age
In the 100 major championships played since 1989, only 15 times have winners been 38 or older. Only 10 have won in their 40s. But Cook brushes off the age factor. “He might be 38 and closing in on 40, but that’s a far different 38 or 40 than it was 30 years ago.”
Good vibe: His age
In each of the past five seasons, a player 38 or older has won a major. Phil Mickelson was 43 when he won the Open Championship last summer. Ernie Els was 42 at Royal Lytham in 2012, Darren Clarke 42 at St. George’s in ’11, Mickelson 39 at Augusta in ’10, Angel Cabrera 39 at Augusta in ’09.
Working against him: Competition, recent history
Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Jason Dufner won their first majors in ’13, Rory McIlroy owns two, and Foley concedes the depth never has been better. Then there are the curious notations that Woods never has come from behind to win a major and his recent weekend form (Muirfield ’13, Augusta ’13, Kiawah ’12, Lytham ’12, Olympic Club ’12) has been suspect.
Good vibe: The venues
At 38, Nicklaus also started a PGA Tour season with 14 major victories. Over the next nine seasons he won four more, all at venues that had treated him nicely in the past. He won for a second time at St. Andrews, in 1978; won a second U.S. Open at Baltusrol, in 1980; won the 1980 PGA at Oak Hill, where he had finished second in the 1968 U.S. Open; and in 1986, of course, he scored a sixth Masters.
Woods gets similar feel-good locales four times this year: Augusta, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla, all venues where he has won, and Pinehurst, where he has finished second and third. And in ’15, there are majors at Augusta and St. Andrews, where he has won a combined six times.
If Woods was disappointed by a fifth consecutive majorless season, it was buffeted by victories at favorite playgrounds (Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill, Firestone) and at a venue (Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass) that has been tough. “Won five times this year,” Woods said at the end of 2013. “I think that’s a pretty good number.”
Who can argue, except that Woods is the same guy who famously said that everything revolved around the majors.
Then again, is he the same guy? Many will say yes, that he hasn’t changed; some will suggest he’s even saltier than ever; but Cook pointed to the biggest change in his friend.
“The balance in his life right now,” Cook said. “I think he thought he had that early on, in the Elin years (before the divorce). Evidently, it wasn’t there. But now, what I see is real happiness, real balance. His kids are a big part of his life. That has brought great meaning to his life.”
Surpassing 82 and 18 would provide greater meaning to his golf legacy.