18 Majors: Tiger’s Ultimate Imitation

As a child phenom back in Cypress, California, young Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods would stare at the image and numbers on his bedroom wall, drawing inspiration from the man who would shape his life’s work: Jack Nicklaus – 18 Majors.

The Golden Bear’s major championship haul of 18 was set back in 1986 at age 46 and has driven Woods to a career which was tracking inevitably towards breaking the record and then some.

Tiger Woods Tiger Woods (Credit: Anthony Powter)

After winning on one leg at the 2008 U.S Open to bring his tally to 14, who would have wagered that five years on, Woods would remain riveted on that number?

“I still think he can do it,” Nicklaus said during final round action at the Honda Classic in March.

“But that said, he has still got to do it. He hasn’t won one in five years. He had better get with it if he’s going to.”

Fast forward a week and an hour down the round to the WGC Cadillac Championship at the ‘Blue Monster’ at Doral and the now 37-year old Woods has definitely taken immediate heed of the Bear’s words.

‘Water balls’ during the Honda cost Woods dearly but he gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead with a magnificent long iron to the tucked right pin over water on the par-five 18th to set up a closing eagle.

It was a shot hardly anybody in the field would have the skills or gumption to attempt, yet it was the mirror image of the shot he executed a year previously which also set up an eagle and a final round 62 that left him a shot shy of Rory McIlroy.

It showed what Woods is capable of and Doral underlined that once again.

At Doral, Woods turned a mediocre finish at the Honda into an epiphany of ball striking and putting, setting personal birdie records after 36 and then 54 holes, to finish with 27 birdies on his way to a two stroke victory over Steve Stricker at 19-under par, his 76th on the PGA Tour.

The 27 birdies was one shy of his personal career best of 28, set twice in 2006 and 2007.

Woods was especially delighted with his putting at Doral, averaging 25 putts for the week (2nd in the field), allowing him to convert good ball striking (tied 7th in greens in regulation) into a 7th WGC victory at Doral, just 5 weeks out from The Masters.

“I am probably in a better spirit because I’m making more putts,” Woods said. “Now I know how (Stricker) feels every day. No wonder he’s always in a good mood.”

He’s also brought the prospect of ‘getting with it’, in the chase for Jack’s record, right back into the equation with The Masters just around the corner.

What was not lost in aftermath and close examination of the performance was that Woods’ course management and shot selection reeked of the Golden Bear’s approach throughout his career. That approach may hold the key to his chances of overhauling the Jack’s major record.

Woods has always imitated Nicklaus’ scheduling of his time and tournament play, limiting his appearances to peak at the Majors.

Earlier in his career, just like Nicklaus, Woods was longer than anyone else in the game but adopted the Nicklaus blueprint to course management by throttling back his power in preference to finding fairways and greens – especially in major championships.

Central though to his future aspirations to catch the Bear may be the decision to imitate the ball flight pattern that Nicklaus was re-known for throughout his career, the power fade.

Woods appears to have adopted the fade as his stock shot from driver down throughout the bag and complete with best-ever short game and putting touch, was an irresistible force at Doral.

Just like Nicklaus, Woods more often than not eliminated the left hand side of the golf course with his tee shots, had great distance control and was able to consistently hit high, floating iron shots that dropped ‘like butterflies with sore feet’ to access tight pin positions on firm, fast greens.

His complete performance on the back of a dominant victory at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines earlier this year had others hinting that he may also have earned back some of the intimidation factor that helped propelled him to such dizzying heights from 1997 to 2008.

“You don’t have a lot of – what’s the right word – belief that he’s going to come back to the field I guess,” Stricker said at Doral. “He’s been so solid with 54-hole leads over his career that you just don’t think he’s going to come back. And he didn’t again.”

And from playing partner Graeme McDowell, who was paired with Woods over the final two rounds, “The way Tiger was playing, I was always in chase mode. He was always going to be a tough guy to catch. Fair play to him, he played fantastic golf the last couple of days.”

Not quite ‘surrender’ but the tide of change is certainly shifting back to where the name ‘Woods’ climbing a leaderboard is something to be extremely nervous about once again.

On his return to the game following highly publicised off-course indiscretions and a third major rebuild of his swing, Woods has now won 5 times in his last 23 starts on the PGA Tour and is within striking distance of Rory McIlroy’s World No. 1 ranking.

“I feel like my game’s becoming more efficient, and it’s more consistent day-in and day-out,” Woods said. “I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made with (coach) Sean (Foley).”

There is no doubting, Woods is ‘back’, as the scoreboard at the Baltusrol Golf Club proclaimed back in 1980, posting the message ‘Jack is Back’ after Nicklaus clinched his fourth US Open title to arise from a slump of his own.

Nicklaus went on to win the PGA Championship by seven shots later that year, was pipped by Tom Watson at Pebble Beach in 1982, Hal Sutton at Riviera for another PGA in 1983 and shot 30 on the back nine to win The Masters in heroic style at age 46 for his final major.

At age 37, Woods undeniably has time on his side to imitate the Bear, but he still has to do it under the gun when the Majors roll around just four times a year.

At the moment though, it appears the Nicklaus record and the manner in which Jack achieved it are more of a beacon illuminating the path for Woods than the insurmountable mountain that has cast a shadow over him these past five years.

Time will tell and Augusta in April will once again be a crucial step on the way.