Things looked very familiar this weekend at Firestone with Tiger Woods winning for an incredible 8th time on the now-historic Akron course, and winning the way he has so often won before—go low early, grab a huge lead, put it on cruise control and win by 7. Whether because of the presence of his children (and whether you’re a fan or not, how great was it to see Tiger Woods holding his son Charlie after winning), a happier personal life, additional motivation provided by one Phil Mickelson at Muirfield, or simply just playing golf again like he’s used to (this is his FIFTH win this year, all big ones), Woods announced to the world that his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus is not anywhere near over and the PGA Championship at Oak Hill just got a lot more interesting.
What is nearly over however is Woods’ pursuit of Sam Snead, now just 3 behind the Slammer’s record PGA Tour win total of 82. It’s hard to imagine the great Woods not blowing past that mark and doing so substantially and easily, in fact he could end up doing it this year. I personally think 100 wins for Woods is a given. But given that it’s Nicklaus’ record 18 professional majors that have been declared the one record to beat, the four-to-tie, five-to-win in that category are where the spotlight continues to shine.
Thus it makes sense to once again step back and measure how Woods is playing now at age 37, against Jack Nicklaus at the same age in 1977 when, at this point in the season, he was coming off the heart-wrenching defeat to Tom Watson in the Duel in the Sun at Turnberry.
Nicklaus followed that up to finish a disappointing 3rd in the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, a mere shot out of the playoff between 47-year-old Gene Littler and winner Lanny Wadkins, after shooting what for him was a terrible 73 on Sunday which included giving a stroke back to the golfing gods on 17, making bogey after being tied for the lead.
Imagine Nicklaus playing in those days in the same media bubble as Woods does today. Surely the stories of Jack’s ultimate demise as a golfer would have been written and the first few nails in his golfing casket solidly hammered despite coming so close to victory in back-to-back majors. But, in actuality, Nicklaus at age 37 really wasn’t the dominant player he had been earlier in his career. He won three times in 1977, all solid events with one victory by 5 shots but he never won like Woods did this weekend at Firestone which included an earth-shattering 61.
Nicklaus went on to win merely 9 more tournaments the remainder of his career. That among those 9 were one last tour around the Grand Slam is what establishes Nicklaus still firmly as golf’s all time greatest. But does anyone really think that Tiger Woods is only going to win NINE more tournaments the rest of his career? He could win 9 in the next 12 months alone! Yet, it’s Woods who gets the press about his major championship run being over, when it could easily be argued that Nicklaus was in the more perilous position at age 37.
Between the British Open of 1972, when Nicklaus was 32, and the British Open of 1977, when he was 37, Nicklaus won three major championships whereas Tiger Woods won zero in that same time frame. Nicklaus’ record in the majors that he didn’t win during that stretch looks very impressive: four seconds, four thirds, four fourths. He was only out of the top 10 twice, with his worst finish a tie for 13th. Woods on the other hand has had flashes of near-brilliance with one second, one third, and three fourths but has also had missed cuts and more importantly, four DNPs.
Those DNPs are what sets the two players apart in this age stretch between 32 and 37 where Nicklaus had good health and steady personal life while Woods has had the exact opposite. But those may be coming back into play for Tiger right now and the way he won this weekend, in fact the way he has played this season, suggests that he’s going to be in the major championship mix for a long, long time to come.
Nicklaus’ most dominant victory after age 37 was his 7-shot victory in the 1980 PGA Championship at, yes, Oak Hill. His winning total though was only 6-under par and he called it the best putting week of his life. Woods doesn’t need the best putting week of his life to win this week at Oak Hill, he just needs that proverbial “A-game” of his or something close to it.
Even if he doesn’t win though, he’s still plenty in the hunt for Jack’s total of 18 majors and more. This is going to be the most interesting part of Tiger Woods’ career, and clearly the best one if you consider how much Nicklaus’ presence lent to the majors in his late 30s and 40s. Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus is going to be “the” story going in to every single major between now and whatever time he can no longer contend. Regardless of the end result, the continuing pursuit is going to be a privilege to watch and if he goes on to beat Nicklaus, it will be so monumental that it could well be golf’s grandest occasion.