- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After an outstanding amateur career, he introduced himself to professional golf with a flourish, winning a major in his first full season as a pro. Once he won one, he began to win them all, achieving the career Grand Slam in his mid-20s.
Then, just as suddenly, the spigot turned off. He went three years without winning a major, and those who sang his praises began to voice doubts. The rest of the golf world had caught up to him. He would never dominate as he once had.
And beginning in 1970, Jack Nicklaus won seven majors in five years.
You could say that with his fourth Masters Tournament victory and his ninth major championship, Tiger Woods has resumed his chase of the Golden Bear's records of six Masters and 18 majors. But the young boy who grew up in Cypress, Calif., with a poster of Nicklaus' accomplishments on the bedroom wall has mimicked them in uncanny fashion.
Woods ended his drought Sunday, a streak of 10 major championships in which he gave himself only one other real chance to win. At the 2002 PGA, Woods birdied the last four holes to close within one stroke of Rich Beem. In the next eight majors, Woods finished in the top 10 only twice.
"Ten majors is not that long," Woods said. "Some guys go oh-for-life."
But Woods acknowledged that this Masters is special. Not because he defeated gutty Chris DiMarco on the first hole of sudden death after they finished 72 holes at 12-under 276, and not because he birdied that playoff hole after bogeying the last two holes of regulation.
"You know, I've kind of battled the last couple of years to work hard on my game and make some changes," Woods said. "I wasn't winning major championships and I contended a couple times and didn't win. But for the most part, I wasn't in contention on the back nine on every major, like I like to be. It was nice to get back there again."
As he revealed last fall, Woods spent last year overhauling his golf swing. Even with a victory Sunday, the transformation is clearly a work in progress. "Staying committed," Woods calls it. As he played the final nine holes Sunday, Woods' new swing flickered in and out like a satellite signal in a thunderstorm.
It was not unfamiliar ground. After Woods won the 1997 Masters, he decided to retool his swing. He went 10 majors without winning his second. He broke through at the 1999 PGA at Medinah, and that victory kick started him into winning six of the next 10 majors.
On Sunday, the major championship record book made room for Woods for the ninth time in his career.
The victory ties Woods with Ben Hogan and Gary Player for third place on the list of majors winners. They are two behind Walter Hagen. Woods is halfway to Nicklaus, and Woods won't turn 30 until December.
"I think that's pretty neat, for me to win four [Masters] before the age of 30," Woods said. "To do something that nobody else has done before is pretty neat."
Nicklaus won 11 majors after he turned 30; three of those 11 came after he turned 40. The thought that Woods has 15 more years of championship golf before him is intoxicating. History and achievement have brought them together. It was Nicklaus who predicted during Woods' amateur days that Tiger would win more Masters than "Arnold and I put together." They won 10.
"Just wondering, 'What was he smoking?'" Woods recalled. "If you saw the way I hit the golf ball in '95. OK, I bombed it down every fairway. I had a wedge I flew over most galleries. I had the length to play this place, but I had no understanding of my golf swing, or distance control, or shot-making. I could curve the ball either way but how much or how far it could go, I had no clue. It was kind of mind-boggling that he could have made that statement."
Now Woods has won the Masters that might have been Nicklaus' last. On Saturday night, Woods was asked if that would mean anything to him.
"It would be kind of cool," Woods said. "I thought I won when he played his last British Open [in 2000]. But I see he's playing again. I remember I won when he played in his last PGA [in 2000]. That was pretty sweet."
There is one last, poignant parallel between Nicklaus and Woods. When Nicklaus ended his major drought, it was shortly after the death of his father, Charlie, the man who instilled in him his love of golf. On the practice putting green Sunday night, after Woods received his green jacket from 2004 winner Phil Mickelson, Woods choked up talking about his father, Earl, who has been in declining health for months.
Earl Woods came to Augusta, but he wasn't well enough to come to Augusta National.
At the ceremony, Woods' voice caught as he described his regret that his father hadn't been behind the 18th green to give him a victory bear hug.
"He's hanging in there," Woods said later, "and so that's why it meant so much for me to be able to win this tournament with him kind of struggling, maybe give him a little hope, a little more fire to keep fighting."
It is still Nicklaus and Woods, locked together by history and achievement. But the day is drawing closer when it will become Woods and Nicklaus.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.
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