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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Life of Reilly

By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine

So here we are at the crossroads of Tiger Woods' career, which is weird, since I never thought there would BE a crossroads.

Covering him since college, I never thought it'd be anything but Tiger's Scorched Earth Tour, steamroller over earthworm, straight to Greatest Golfer Ever. But now, for the first time, there's just a smidgen of a hint of a droplet of a doubt.

Tiger Woods is 33 and coming off a rebuild of his left knee -- the fourth operation on it. And yet he still seems to be torquing hard on it, straightening it stiff at impact and pivoting madly around it.

So the question after this near nine-month halftime of his fabulous career becomes: Is passing Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors still the five-star lock we all thought it was? Is the Nicklaus Speedbump growing?

"I really don't know," says Nicklaus, now 69. "Tiger's got an unbelievable work ethic, and he's so fit. But that knee makes it a little less certain."

The two of them even talked about it a week after Tiger's preposterous one-legged U.S. Open win last June, his 14th major victory.

"Nobody wants their records broken," Nicklaus told him. "I don't want my records broken. But I don't want you NOT to break my records because you're not healthy. Get healthy and let's see what happens. But I'll do anything I can to help you." "You guys are all so willing to just hand it to Tiger: Greatest Player Ever, like it's over already. And he'll probably wind up as that," says Nicklaus. "But he has to do it first, doesn't he?"

If it were anybody but Tiger, wouldn't you say he's going to need it? How's Ernie Els been since his knee surgery? One PGA win, no majors. Stuart Appleby? Zero wins. Brad Faxon? Cold case.

So far, in his two hand-picked comeback tournaments, Woods was a) knocked out early in the Accenture Match Play, and b) no factor at Doral last week -- an event he'd won six times.

But he's Tiger, so you say, "Pah! Rust!"

In the meantime, golf has gotten sharper. Phil Mickelson suddenly looks like a brawler. A lot of the flab is gone, along with much of his neck. He's won two of his last three starts, including a gritty, stomach-virus win at Doral. He's got a new swing -- does the name Butch Harmon ring a bell? -- that seems to have eliminated the God-no! slice from his bag.

But, of course, this is Tiger and that is Phil, so you say, "Cha! Tiger flosses bits of Phil out every night!"

And Nicklaus agrees. "How many majors do Ernie and Phil and Vijay (Singh) have? (Three each.) That's not much. I never had it to myself the way Tiger has. First, I had to get by Arnold (Palmer, 7) and Gary (Player, 9), and then I had to start in on Lee (Trevino, 6) and (Tom) Watson (8). To win majors consistently, you have to have been there a lot, and nobody really has but Tiger."

But what about all these young puppies bouncing around at Tiger's ankles -- Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas and Rory McIlroy? They make Tiger look like the den master waiting for the cub scouts to settle down so he can take roll.

"Maybe Tiger's real competition hasn't surfaced yet," Nicklaus says. "You never know. How many majors would Arnold have won if I hadn't come along?"

Also consider: Woods is a father of two now. He'll be a billionaire by the end of next year. He's an avid underwater spear fisherman. (He can hold his breath for four minutes). He is addicted to skiing. (Starting to hit the black slopes). He is crazy for his 155-foot yacht ("Privacy.") With any other player, you'd ask, "How does a guy like that stay hungry?"

But it's Tiger, so you say: "Shah! Kids, no kids, hair, no hair, yacht or not, Tiger will never back off!"

And I agree. Besides, Nicklaus probably would've stopped with 15 majors if it weren't for his kids. "They kept after me to keep playing," he says. "I figured I'd retire at 38 or so. But they wanted to be a part of it, caddy and all that. So I kept at it." And thus, he won a U.S. Open and a PGA at 40 and a Masters at 46.

Me, I expect Future Tiger to remain the bloodless, unblinking hit man, but with more vacation time between kills. I used to think he could get to an unthinkable 30 majors. Now I think he'll end up at 22 or 23. He'll pass Sam Snead's PGA Tour wins mark of 82, but I don't think he'll get to 100. I think the knee will require at least another operation but I'd cringe at more than that. Because someday I'd like to see Eldrick play golf with Sam and Charlie without a Namath limp.

But it's possible that we've seen the best of Tiger Woods. There's even a small chance that he won't pass Nicklaus at all. Which begs the question: Would he still be The Greatest Golfer ever?

I'd say no.

Way back in 2001, I was in a bar with Nicklaus and he said something I'll never forget:

"You guys are all so willing to just hand it to Tiger: Greatest Player Ever, like it's over already. And he'll probably wind up as that. But he has to do it first, doesn't he? And that means getting past all the injuries and things that can bite you. His swing has a helluva lot of torque in it, doesn't it? And he's going to have kids, right? There's gonna be a whole lot of times when he'd rather be at his son's football game or his daughter's dance recital. I'm just saying, the kid is amazing, and I'll be the first guy to congratulate him, but doesn't he actually have to do it first?"

But this is Tiger, so you say: "Pssh! He's not like the rest of us. He's not human!"

Right?

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