Can Tiger catch Jack? It’s a question I wondered if we would ever hear again.
When Tiger Woods was preparing to return to the game in late 2017, having missed the whole of that year’s PGA Tour season, he was ranked well outside the world’s top 1,000 golfers.
To put that in perspective, he was among hopeful rookies on their way up via the various satellite tours around the world, interspersed with stalwarts playing in their final tour events, sometimes by choice and more often not.
Being ranked in the 1,190s is very far from the place where those who are currently making a living from the game inhabit.
Tiger is now up to World No. 6. It’s his highest ranking since 2014. He’s within touching distance of adding to the astonishing 683 weeks he spent as World No. 1 in 11 different stints between 1997 and 2014.
When he first made it to World No. 1, in June 1997, the rest of the top 10 read as follows: Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Nick Price, Tom Lehman, Steve Elkington, Jumbo Ozaki, Mark O’Meara, Nick Faldo.
Also inside the top 50 were the likes of Tom Watson, Craig Stadler, Bob Tway, Payne Stewart and Sam Torrance.
Of all the emotions following a Masters that will be talked about in the same vein as Jack Nicklaus’s last major win in 1986, I am struck by the sci-fi element of Tiger playing – and triumphing – against golfers of the future.
Or should that be, the players of the present being confronted by a figure from the past.
All of those futile yet irresistible debates we have in sport comparing players and teams from different eras – and here we were with such an experiment taking place in front of our eyes.
I had long been hoping beyond hope to see Tiger roll back the years one last time and show the likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, plus a new generation of golf and sport fans, what it was like when he was genuinely in the hunt for a major.
Now it has happened and, what’s more, he saw them all off.
This fifth Green Jacket did not come entirely out of the blue. Tiger was runner-up at last year’s PGA and sixth at the Open, where he led midway through the final round at Carnoustie.
In this context, his 15th major does not feel like a swan song. He is now a genuine favourite for May’s PGA Championship at Bethpage, June’s US Open at Pebble Beach and July’s Open Championship at Portrush, just like Brooks Koepka, McIlroy, Johnson, Justin Rose and co will be.
Beyond that, who knows? But it doesn’t feel unrealistic to imagine our hero as a contender for at least the next five years.
He’s fit and healthy and he’s happy – very happy – both on and off the course.
He could become a specialist in Masters and Open Championships especially, where craft and know-how can count for more than brawn and athleticism.
Suddenly, Jack’s impregnable total of 18 majors, a number that has informed Tiger’s sub-conscious ever since he was a kid, doesn’t seem quite so far away again.
Nicklaus won his majors over a span of 24 years, from 1962 to 1986. He was 22 when he won the US Open, his first major. There were six years between his 17th and 18th titles.
Tiger was 21 when he won the Masters back in 1997. He’s now 43. Phil Mickelson is still going strong at almost 49 – though his most recent major came six years ago.
So can Tiger catch Jack? I’m saying he has a chance.
Can Tiger catch Jack? The majors so far
Masters: 6 (1963, ’65, ’66, ’72, ’75, ’86)
US Open: 4 (1962, ’67, ’72, ’80)
The Open: 3 (1966, ’70, ’78)
PGA Championship: 5 (1963, ’71, ’73, ’75, ’80)
Masters: 5 (1997, 2001, ’02, ’05, ’19)
US Open: 3 (2000, ’02, ’08)
The Open: 3 (2000, ’05, ’06)
PGA Championship: (1999, 2000, ’06, ’07)