HIS LATE CHARGE AT THE PGA CAME UP JUST SHORT, BUT IT SERVED AS A REMINDER THAT TIGER WOODS CAN STILL THRILL US LIKE NO ONE ELSE—AND THAT HIS PURSUIT OF THE GOLDEN BEAR'S RECORD OF 18 MAJOR VICTORIES IS BACK ON, AGE BE DAMNED
IF YOU watched Brooks Koepka as he shot a final-round 66 to win the PGA Championship and wondered how he got there, the answer was walking down a nearby fairway at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. As Koepka said, "The whole reason that people in my generation are even playing golf was because of him." And surely we don't have to tell you who him refers to.
Koepka has won three majors in 14 months, and so by all rights and logic, when we talk about pro golfers, right now, he should have honors and lead off the conversation. But as the perpetually overlooked Koepka knows, that isn't how this works. The biggest story at Bellerive was not the champion. It was the man who shot 64 on Sunday to finish second. Said the 28-year-old Koepka, "It brought me back to when I was a kid, and when I was watching him and you heard those roars."
The Tiger Woods story again feels like it did a decade ago, when it felt both absurdly impossible and utterly familiar. Woods briefly had the Sunday lead at the British Open before falling into a tie for sixth. Then came that charge at the PGA, where Woods came up short of victory but got the sports world thinking, once again, about the long game. Woods turns 43 in December. If he stays healthy, what else can he achieve?
As much as any athlete of the last 50 years, Woods has managed to put outsized expectations in front of a fun-house mirror and make them look reasonable. Before Woods turned pro, Jack Nicklaus said he should win more than 10 Masters. By the time Woods turned 30, in 2005, he had won 10 majors and looked certain to win 15 more.
He has been stuck on 14 majors since 2008, but those expectations continue to infect every assessment of Woods. In recent years, when it was clear that back injuries had sapped Woods of his skills, one good round would create illogical buzz. The expectations bring backlash, too: Last week, Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee, a frequent Woods critic, went on a podcast and said, "I would argue he got the least out of his talent of any player, maybe in history." Woods has 79 PGA Tour wins, including those 14 majors. (We need a term for an otherwise erudite person digging so deep into a position that he says ridiculous things without even realizing it: a verb, to chamblee.)
Woods has not won a tournament in five years, but golf fans are far more excited about his next year than they are about, say, the future exploits of Dustin Johnson. The next major, of course, is the Masters in April. There are many reasons to like Woods's chances. He has won the green jacket four times. The course favors experience and creativity, which Woods has in abundance, and forgives wayward drives, which Woods hits with regularity.
Then come two majors at courses that, as Woods might say, fit his eye. The PGA moves to May, and to Bethpage Black on Long Island, where Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open and finished tied for sixth at the 2009 Open. In June the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach, the site of his most impressive win. Woods finished 12 under at the 2000 Open; everybody else finished at least three over—and also six feet under.
Woods needs four wins to pass Sam Snead for most victories in PGA Tour history. He also needs four more majors to tie Nicklaus's record. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Absolutely. But one of Woods's great feats this year is that he suddenly seems young again ... which, by golf's historical standards, he sort of is.
Any talk about legendary golfers winning majors at an advanced age starts with Nicklaus's winning the 1986 Masters at 46. It is perhaps the most famous victory in golf history, but time has distorted its meaning. We remember Nicklaus, tongue out and putter extended, watching his putt on 16 drop, but what we forget is that he was barely even a professional golfer at the time, ranking 160th on the Tour money list entering that Masters. He was preoccupied with rescuing his foundering business. When Nicklaus shot 69 in the third round at Augusta, he said it was "the first time I've broken 70 since I can't remember when." Nicklaus's win in '86 was not like Tom Brady's being the best player in the NFL in his 40s; it was the equivalent of Peyton Manning's signing with a team in December and winning the Super Bowl two months later.
Winning a major as a fortysomething is not as crazy as it sounds. There is ample evidence it can be done, and not just by legends. Jerry Barber won his only major, the 1961 PGA, at age 45. Roberto De Vicenzo won his only major, the British, at 44, and he famously blew the 1968 Masters by signing an incorrect scorecard on his 45th birthday (or as he probably would have called it, his 47th birthday).
Two months after Nicklaus won that Masters, Raymond Floyd won the U.S. Open at age 43. Floyd would be one of the best golfers in the world throughout his 40s; he lost a Masters playoff when he was 47. Floyd's contemporary Hale Irwin won the 1990 U.S. Open at 45.
Most golfers do not peak in their 40s—but some do. Mark O'Meara won his only two majors, the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open, at 41. Woods already enjoyed the greatest peak in golf history; as long as his fused back holds up, he has a better chance of contending in his mid- to late 40s than anybody else.
Most of the best golfers in history landed on major-championship leader boards at an advanced age. Nicklaus tied for sixth at the Masters at 58. Tom Watson was an eight-foot putt away from winning the British Open at age 59. Ben Hogan recorded three top 10s in majors after he turned 50. Sam Snead finished in the top 10 at the PGA Championship three times in his 60s.
Yes, yes: This is a different era. Snead never looked across the fairway and saw a hunk of muscle like Koepka. But Woods still has the length and swing speed to compete with anybody. And with modern club and ball technology, it is hard to envision any course being too long for Woods.
This fall Woods is expected to play Phil Mickelson in a $10 million match play event. It will excite some fans, annoy only the most extreme purists, and ultimately mean nothing except to the two men and their accountants. But while they are out there, playfully talking trash and firing at pins, Woods can see a bit of his future self in his longtime rival. Mickelson is the embodiment of what Woods can still achieve, but also how hard it will be.
Mickelson won the 2013 British Open at 43, the same age Woods will be next year. He has finished second in three majors since. He will probably get picked for the Ryder Cup team at age 48. But Mickelson's dream of winning a U.S. Open (and finishing his career Grand Slam) is fading. He has won one tournament in the last five years.
The margin between winning and losing is thinner than a skulled 3-iron. On Woods's second hole at the PGA, he hit his tee shot into the left rough. The pin was 119 yards away, but it was protected by water on the right. Woods said later, "I was trying to hit the ball left of the hole. I stuck in the ground and hit it short right." It landed in the water. If he had taken a more conservative line or made cleaner contact, he probably would have made par there, and maybe right now you would be reading a story about Tiger Woods winning his 15th major. Instead he made double bogey. He played his next 70 holes in 17 under par, but still could not catch Koepka.
In the big races of his career—his quests to surpass Nicklaus and Snead—Woods built up a huge lead, then stalled. He is picking up speed again. It will be fun to see how far he can go.
THE OLD GUARD
Woods turns 43 in December, which means he can't crack the list of the five oldest major winners until the 2021 Masters
1968 PGA Championship, 48 years, 4 months, 18 days
OLD TOM MORRIS
1867 British Open, 46 years, 3 months, 10 days
1986 Masters, 46 years, 2 months, 23 days
1961 PGA Championship, 45 years, 3 months, 6 days
1990 U.S. Open, 45 years, 15 days