Tiger Woods will never pass Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the Memorial Tournament

Iris Gaines: You know, I believe we have two lives.
Roy Hobbs: How… what do you mean?
Iris Gaines: The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.

Tiger Woods has always wanted to be known as the best golfer there ever was. When Woods was young, as the story goes, he hung Jack Nicklaus posters in his bedroom, vowing one day to eclipse the Golden Bear’s 18 major victories. When he won his first major in 1997 it was a stunning start, when he won his 14th in 2008, it was only a matter of time.

We all know what happened next. Tiger met his real-life Barbara Hershey in the guise of a fire hydrant (or was it Elin’s 9-iron?), and the caved-in Escalade became a symbol of what Woods’ life had become – a powerful machine with a glaring scar for all to see. Woods has recovered somewhat from his 2010 plummet, but people are like cars, they never work the same following a huge crash.

Colin Montgomerie made news last week for saying Tiger won’t pass Nicklaus, but he’s absolutely right – Tiger Woods will never win 19 majors. He’ll win another Masters or two – Augusta is one of those courses where one’s might is good enough to grab the Green Jacket. But the competition has caught up and Tiger’s mental acuity – and ability to stifle his fellow golfers – has diminished.

It takes brass balls for a man who never won a single major to criticize a man who’s won 14. But Montgomerie is the perfect person to speak of such things: The pressure Tiger feels to pass Jack is the way every great golfer who never won a major feels about winning one.

His five-year Major-less period allows for some introspection of Tiger’s earlier years, which was difficult to critique since it seemed he won every time out. One thing is fairly obvious – he was never one to rally from a deficit. Tiger is at his best when he’s in the lead – he knows how to defend his fortress. But if he has to break down the walls to take over another man’s lead, he’s often left on the outside.

Tiger will never enter Jack’s fortress.

Here’s some stats to savor – six times Jack Nicklaus came back in a final round to win a major. The number of times Tiger has done that – 0. In the 1970s Jack Nicklaus finished in the top 10 of the Masters and British Open EVERY YEAR. Of the 40 majors he played in the 1970s, Jack placed in the top 10 35 times. Nicklaus won 18 majors and finished second 19(!) times. Jack could easily have 25 major wins. If you start to look at all these statistics, Tiger can never be the golfer Jack was.

Sure, Tiger is No. 1, he’s won five times on tour this season, and soon he will be the winningest golfer of all time (he’s three behind Sam Snead). But do you think any of those wins not connected to a major matter to him? It has and always will be about the majors for Tiger, and the pressure he must feel with each passing miss must be unbearable. And it’s only going to get worst.

Yes, he continues to be one the best hitters people ever saw, but he’s not what he used to be. Of course, to paraphrase Thom Yorke, he did that to himself.

When it comes to golf, I am a Tiger fan (of his personal decisions I’m of a different opinion). Golf is interesting when Tiger is in the mix – aside from Phil Mickelson and Angel Cabrera, the lot of PGA players is a rather boring and rote bunch of hitting machines. Woods used to make the putt when he needed it, or flop the iron three-feet from the hole at any given moment. But he doesn’t do that anymore, he’s just another golfer with moments of stellar play. He’s king of the B’s.

Tiger is in the second part of his life, learning to live with his run of ruinous choices. I hope he can accept being in Jack Nicklaus shadow, because that’s where he’ll always be.