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    The case for Tiger Woods

    by Ken Pomeroy on Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    When Tiger Woods announced he was not competing in this week’s U.S. Open, a collective nation wrote the obit on Tiger’s career. All of a sudden, the notion that Woods will challenge Nicklaus’s record of winning 18 majors is the contrarian point of view.

    The piece by the AP national sports columnist Tim Dahlberg seemed to get the most visibility and the gist of his column was this:

    The golden era of Tiger Woods is over, done in by both scandal and injury. He’s not going to win five more majors, might not even win five more tournaments.

    I’m no Will Carroll and there’s not a lot of precedence for a golfer with a bad knee. Most golfers are struck down by neck, back, shoulder, or arm injuries, so who knows if Tiger will be healthy enough to play again. Most doctors seem to think he’ll be able to recover, though. It’s fair to say there’s a small chance the knee will prevent him from playing regular golf again. If that’s the case then Tiger won’t win five more tournaments.

    There’s a very real chance that by the time he plays in his next major it will have been nearly four years since he won his last.

    The drought is already the longest of his career. And there is no indication it will end anytime soon.

    I wonder what would be an indication it will end soon. In his last full tournament he finished fourth at the Masters. He finished fourth at the U.S. Open last year. Since his last major victory three years ago, he’s competed in nine majors and finished sixth or better in six of them.  I haven’t looked it up, but I’m guessing few, if any, golfers have as many high finishes during that time. And this is a stretch where Tiger hasn’t been at his best.

    Then there’s this: Even with the injury, Tiger was listed among the favorites for this week’s tournament before he dropped out. I know most people think they’re smarter than the betting public, and I wouldn’t suggest that golf futures are as sharp as lines for individual college basketball games, for instance. But it’s clear a damaged Tiger is at the very least competitive with the top golfers in the game. Of course, top golfers are often inconsistent from tournament-to-tournament and year-to-year, and will occasionally not win or even struggle to make a cut.

    It’s interesting that while Nicklaus never had to deal with injury or personal turmoil, there was plenty of negativity about his game when he wasn’t winning regularly.  This article published just before the 1978 Open Championship, when he was 38, gives an indication of this. “Time is running out on him”, Jack is said to have recently admitted. (Eerily similar to Dahlberg’s “The window of opportunity is narrowing.”) From this point on, Nicklaus would win four additional majors, finish runner-up an additional four times, and post a total of 10 top-five finishes in major championships. Furthermore, as we learned Monday in this spot, this is a bit of an exaggeration…

    And when it seemed like there was no way he could win another, he charged down the back nine of Augusta National 25 years ago to win one last green jacket in perhaps the most memorable Masters ever at the age of 46.

    Let’s not play Nicklaus as Hans Moleman hobbling down the fairway in ’86, unable to remember what he ate for breakfast. He had just posted the best seasons since 1960 for a 43 and 44-year old, and even though his ‘85 season was “just” the seventh-best for a 45-year old, he finished sixth in the Masters that season and had two runner-up finishes on tour. He was no longer the best player in the world by ‘86, but it was clear he was still capable of playing winning golf. If it seemed like there was no way he could win another major, people weren’t paying attention.

    Yes, Woods’ injuries are there and their frequency is troubling. Tiger may well turn into the Terrell Davis of golf. If that’s the case, then Jack’s record is safe, probably for many decades. But assuming Tiger can physically play again, and doctors seem to agree that he will, his ceiling is still plenty high even if he doesn’t get healthy for another year or two. Considering he eclipsed Jack every season at the same age until his leg injury, there’s some reason to think Tiger can eclipse Jack’s work in his late 30’s through mid 40’s.

    Tiger has one big advantage over Jack – he knows the number he has to get to. If Walter Hagen had won 19 majors, I expect Nicklaus would have been a little more driven in his late 40’s. If the knees don’t force him to a wheelchair, there’s reason to think Woods could still play very well into his late 40’s, or even beyond if need be. While people marveled at Tom Watson nearly winning an Open Championship at 59, Sam Snead finished third at the PGA in 1974 at age 62. Snead’s run after the age of fifty was amazing. He had nine top tens in 34 majors. Woods won’t win majors in his 60’s, but the point is that it’s far too restrictive to suggest he can’t win after age 46 if he needs another major to set the record.

    Tiger almost surely will never be the player he was in 2008 or 2000, but that was so much better than anyone else, he doesn’t have to be that good to still win majors. Outside of Rory McIlroy, there’s no potential challenger to Woods in his late 30’s and early 40’s the way Watson was to Nicklaus in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Phil Mickelson is on the backside of his career as for that matter is Lee Westwood. Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar are fine players, but not candidates to win enough majors to significantly limit Tiger’s chances. Golfers come back from slumps all the time to return to their potential, so it’s early to write off Woods.