Commentary

Tiger Woods puts his greatness in play

Catching Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 wins at majors is no longer such a sure thing

Updated: June 15, 2010, 5:57 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Tiger WoodsAP Photo/Eric RisbergOne of the mysteries of the 2010 Open: What kind of game is Tiger bringing to Pebble Beach?

You can't sleep on greatness. Not one bit. Not ever. As proved by Jack Nicklaus, who won his last major, the 1986 Masters, at the ridiculous age of 46, the oldest player ever to win at Augusta. Even today, if Jack, or even Arnie, were within a couple of shots of the lead on any given Sunday this summer, your lunch money likely would still be on him rather than on some relatively anonymous PGA Tour pro atop the leaderboard.

That's greatness.

Tiger Woods is greatness. Or, at least, he was. I'm not so sure anymore. You don't wonder whether greatness will make the cut. Not this soon, at least. Not when greatness should be in its prime.

But that was before the knee injury (which most folks seem to have forgotten), and before Woods' SUV got frisky with a tree outside his home. Before those events, and the weeks of humbling humiliation that followed, he was the guy with 14 majors going on history. He was the guy with 71 tour wins in his back pocket, third only to Snead and Nicklaus.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelSeems odd, but we can't even be sure Tiger will make the cut this week.

He was the guy who made us stop caring about top-10 finishes, and start caring only about winning.

He was the guy with the shots we remembered. Shots that made us scream and drool like Big Baby.

He was simply The Guy.

If he was within the vicinity of the lead on Sunday, he claimed it.

He knew it.

Fans knew it.

More important, the anonymous tour pros ahead of him knew it.

Not anymore. The lurking, intimidating Tiger? More like a meow.

Thanks in part to his travails, Woods (and I think he would agree) seems to be playing in a stupor as he moves through the stage of his career that should be his best chance to gain on the record he has aimed for since he was a child: Jack's 18 majors. He's 34 years old, still prime time for greatness in golf.

Nicklaus, in contrast to Woods, was in full-blown growling Bear mode at this juncture of his career. From the ages of 25 to 35, he won 11 majors. He finished out of the top 10 only 11 times in 44 majors in that span, missing the cut twice.

But even from his 35th birthday onward, Jack's greatness raged. He won six more majors and finished second eight more times. In fact, between 35 and 45, he finished out of the top 10 only three times, missing the cut just once (the 1978 PGA Championship). And that includes the aberration that was 1979 when he did not win a single tournament, the first time he had done that as a pro.

Even as his greatness finally faded to time, Nicklaus was able to remind us of its enduring possibilities.

Nicklaus never took greatness for granted, never flaunted or abused it.

Now Woods might be paying the price for doing all of the above. He's averaging 71.08 in 13 rounds this year, a stunning 90th on the tour and more than 2 strokes higher than he averaged last year. Now, he can't hit a fairway any better than I can. He's ranked 164th, hitting barely half (54.4 percent) of the short grass off the tee.

In FedEx points, he's ranked 145th -- he has played in only four events -- and barely has earned enough tournament winnings ($405,300, ranked 118th) to pay his new, no doubt higher, car insurance premiums.

Jack Nicklaus
AP PhotoOne of Jack's 18 major championships was the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach.

In four tournaments this year, Woods largely has been little more than just another golfer in the pack -- when he was able to be in the pack. He hasn't really pulled off a Shot To Remember since the early rounds of the Masters, and hasn't hit a Shot That Matters all year, unless you count the ones that prevented him from having to go home on the weekend.

The days when the guys ahead of him on the leaderboard would overswing and shank shots like duffers in a $10 skins game are done. At least for now. Maybe forever.

He's still ranked No. 1; but in reality, he's Samson, post-haircut.

But you never sleep on greatness, and Tiger can still be great. Yes, he can. No one would be surprised if he were to stroll down the 18th at Pebble Beach this Sunday with his name already being engraved on the champion's trophy. (OK, we might be slightly surprised.)

But now, as each major slips by, it's time to begin wondering whether Nicklaus' record is safe after all.

In the weeks after Tiger's public admission of infidelity, as his marriage crumbled and his reputation grew more sullied by the moment, I wondered to friends and colleagues whether this -- not age nor injury -- would be what prevents him from rewriting the record as we all expected he would. Many scoffed at my musing. They're not scoffing anymore.

Four more majors for the struggling 34-year-old golfer suddenly seem a lot less likely than even just a year ago. Back then, any discussion about whether Woods would at least tie the storied mark was peppered with more whens than ifs.

Now, Woods seems less likely to win at Pebble than his protege Anthony Kim, or even any number of guys nicknamed Bubba.

In fact, it's time to wonder whether we'll ever see the Tiger we knew again. The Tiger whose swings reverberated through an entire golf course. The Tiger whose name was on the leaderboard even when it wasn't.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaTen years ago, he won by 15 strokes at Pebble Beach. But that was a different Tiger.

The Tiger who once won at Pebble Beach by a sick 15 strokes in 2000.

Now, you wonder whether time, his body and the drama of the past six months (maybe especially the drama) have won.

It's dangerous to think that, of course. Ever is a long time, especially in a sport in which, as Nicklaus has proved, greatness can reign even into middle age. Moreover, Tiger might be reading this along with you and getting fired up to prove me and others wrong.

He might have gone west with his body sound, his swing smooth and confident, and his mind as clear as it's been in months.

That's what greatness does. It reaffirms itself just as we begin to dismiss it.

When it can.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com