Commentary

Chasing the Bear

Updated: July 21, 2010, 12:19 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Tiger/JackScott Halleran/Getty ImagesThis week's Open is a turning point in Tiger Woods' quest to win more majors than Jack Nicklaus.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- I used to think Tiger Woods would pass Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors like a highway rest stop, but now I'm starting to wonder. He has 14, but he's 34 and aging like the portrait of Dorian Gray. Headlines on TMZ.com and in the London Daily Mail will do worse things to you than whiskey and pork combined.

Most great players don't win majors past 40. Tom Watson stopped at 33. Arnie at 34. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman both stopped at 38. Hogan stopped at 40. The Golden Bear's last major would've been at 40 until all the stars and every planet aligned one last time at Augusta in 1986, when he won his 18th at 46.

"I still think he's got a 90 percent chance to do it," says Steve Stricker. "He's in better shape than Jack was."

But Jack didn't have a left knee like Tiger's. Any orthopedist will tell you that for a joint that's had four surgeries, the question is not IF it's going to get arthritis, it's WHEN.

"That's true," Stricker says. "OK, let's say 80 percent."

If we agree on the 40 thing, that leaves Woods with, more or less, five and a half years left in his prime -- 22 more majors. He's played 52 majors as a pro and won 14 of them, so that's about one in every four.

Twenty-two chances to win five? For the old Tiger, a bunny layup.

For the post-fire-hydrant, porn-star-plagued, gross-national-product-of-Peru-divorce-settling Tiger, a little harder. "I think the odds are more in his favor than not," says Phil Mickelson.

OK, but where will he get the five?

After turning 35 later this year, he's got five more cracks at Augusta, which is his happy place, if you can call a place where you get heckled by banner-towing airplanes happy. He's won four times there in 13 tries -- that's about one in every three -- although none in his past four appearances, his longest streak without somebody handing him a green jacket. Plus, the rest of the field isn't scared of him like it was before. Still, if he gets his life back in bounds, you've got to figure he'll get at least one of those. That leaves four.

He's got five more U.S. Opens in his prime, but no more at Pebble Beach or Torrey Pines, where he's won. And unless he and his driver start speaking to each other again, U.S. Opens to him are what ice caps are becoming to polar bears. There's just not enough room.

The next Open is at Congressional, where he finished T19 as a rookie. The one after that is at Olympic -- T18 last time. Two are at places he's never competed: Merion and Chambers Bay. But he gets one at Pinehurst, where he's come in third and second. That last one, in 2005, he would've won except for the out-of-the-blue, never-to-be-repeated performance of New Zealand's Michael Campbell, who will soon be around to take your drink order. So let's say he gets one of the five. That leaves three.

The next six PGA Championships don't set up well for him at all. Two are at Whistling Straits, the Royal County Down wannabe that will have rough you'll be able to hide a small cow in and is totally wrong for Woods' game right now. When he played there at the 2004 PGA, he finished 24th.

One's at Atlanta Athletic Club, where he finished T29 in 2001, and another's at Oak Hill, where he did even worse in 2003. His best chance will be at Valhalla, where he won by sheer force of will in his Tiger Slam -- anybody remember Bob May?

So maybe he gets one of those. That leaves two.

Which brings us to the nut graph. He's got six more British Opens, including this one at his beloved St. Andrews and probably another here in 2015. That's what makes this British Open so essential for Tiger Woods. Right now, he's stuck in golf and he's stuck in life. St. Andrews can be the defibrillator that kick-starts him.

This British Open is essential for Tiger Woods. Right now, he's stuck in golf and he's stuck in life. St. Andrews can be the defibrillator that kick-starts him.

This is his favorite course. It was practically invented for him. Fairways the size of Heathrow runways. There should be a sign: Driver Welcome Here. He's played three Open Championships here. In 1995, as an amateur, he finished tied for 68th. But the other two times, he won handily. The first he won by 8 shots when he was young and bulletproof. The other, five years later, he won by 5. He needs to win here. If you're hunting majors, you can't let fat, slow ones like St. Andrews get away.

More importantly, a win at St. Andrews gets the media monkey off his back. Most of the tabs and the gossip sites will figure, OK, he's over it. What's Becks up to?

But lose at St. Andrews and it feeds that monkey steroids. The question is amplified. You can see it on magazine covers already: Will Tiger Ever Be Tiger Again?

Worse, maybe he starts asking it himself.

I used to predict Tiger would end up with 25 majors. At one time, he had a three-and-a-half-year lead on Nicklaus. But now he's moving like Betty White in snowshoes. Sure, golf is fickle. Some days you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you. But there are days now when Tiger resembles a tabby. Quitting at Wachovia. Making a bogey on 10 at Pebble Beach with a sand wedge in his hand for his second shot on Sunday. Barely making the cut at his own tournament last week.

OK, who are you and what have you done with Tiger Woods?

"I don't know," says Mickelson. "I still think the chances are better that he will do it than he won't."

Me, too. When he's on, he's still the greatest golfer I've ever seen by a par 4.

But if he doesn't start this week, The Bear starts eating him.


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