Debating Tiger's legacy

Tiger WoodsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

As far as birthdays go, this one is far better than the last. Any celebratory occasions in concert with Tiger Woods turning 41 can commence with cautious optimism and a healthy outlook as it relates to his golf, far different than the doom and despair of late 2015.

From barely being able to get out of bed to flushing drives 300-plus yards, Woods has gone from the dark recesses of his career possibly being finished to far more positive thoughts, such as playing a full schedule and winning again.

While hoisting a trophy to mark his 80th PGA Tour victory or winning a 15th major championship are feats that are in no way guaranteed and seemingly a good bit in the future, Woods' pursuit of them will nonetheless be fascinating, as has been the entirety of his career dating to his amateur and junior days.

We're talking a span of 25 years, to the time he first teed it up in a PGA Tour event as a 16-year-old amateur.

When Woods solemnly stated more than a year ago that what he did in golf from that point would be "gravy,'' his words were met with concern, the stark reality setting in: There might be no more greatness emanating from the most dominant golfer of his generation, one who dared to challenge Jack Nicklaus' major championship record.

So if Woods doesn't make it to the Golden Bear, are we to deem him a failure? A disappointment?

You get that sense in some circles, particularly among those who have reveled in Woods' struggles and take glee in every errant shot, poor score or aborted comeback. There is no small segment of golf followers who believe Woods gets too much acclaim and that the focus should instead be on the up-and-coming players.

That, of course, would be missing the big picture, neglecting just how enormous Woods was and still is. Perhaps there is no better endorsement of that notion than the reaction of contemporary players who seem to have no issue with the spotlight being placed on Woods, even as he sits outside the top 600 in the world.

"I think we proved that golf does not need Tiger,'' said Brandt Snedeker at the Hero World Challenge, where Woods made his return to competitive golf. "It was successful the last couple of years when we didn't have Tiger, to see Rory [McIlroy] and Jordan [Spieth] and other guys step up and play the way they did.

"That said, golf is better when Tiger is around. I don't know if we need Tiger. We all want Tiger. I want to see Tiger playing again. It's fun. He has an innate ability to do things that only a couple of guys in the world can do.''

Whether Woods can do those things to the level he once did is the source of ongoing conjecture. Winning four more majors to catch Nicklaus would appear a tall order. Only four players -- Tom Morris Sr. (3), Harry Vardon (2), Julius Boros (2) and Mark O'Meara (2) -- have won multiple majors after their 41st birthday.

Only 29 majors in total have been won by players who are 41 and older, including the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, and, of course, Nicklaus, who at age 46 won the 1986 Masters, his 18th and final major.

The Golden Bear won majors spanning 24 years, a remarkable feat itself. Gary Player won nine across 19 years, his last coming at age 42.

Perhaps that is where a good bit of the angst lies with Woods. He won his 14 majors over 11 years, starting with the 1997 Masters and his last coming at the 2008 U.S. Open. At one point, he won seven of 11 majors played, equaling Arnold Palmer's career mark in less than three years.

There is disappointment, almost shock, that he hasn't added to the total.

On the day Woods held aloft the U.S. Open trophy with one leg throbbing and a surgery-induced layoff looming, even the biggest of Woods' detractors would have been hard-pressed to write off his chances of catching Nicklaus.

Woods was just 32, entering what many believe to be the prime of a golfer's career. If he could win on one leg and win as frequently as he did with a bad knee, how good could he be when fully healed and healthy? It seemed a matter of when, not if.

For various reasons, it did not happen: the runner-up finish to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship, his personal strife later that year that resulted in a five-month self-imposed exile from the game, various injuries, including three back surgeries that have now caused him to miss 10 majors since winning his last. You can take them individually or lump them together and have plenty of fodder

"He's definitely a victim of his own success, that's for sure,'' said McIlroy, who turned pro and won four majors since Woods captured his last. "There's been a handful of great athletes in the world in my lifetime or in any of our lifetimes that have put up numbers and consistent years like Tiger did for basically a 10-year period. That's usually an athlete's career, is 10 years. It's a 10-year span where you try to make the most of it, and in that 10-year span he won 14 major championships (from 1997-2008) and 80 PGA Tour events (Woods won 79 from 1996 through 2013), so whenever he doesn't do that people are going to say, 'What's wrong?'

"But I go back to this point all the time, it's, we're a culture now where everything is "what have you done for me now, what have you done for me lately" type of stuff. And people forget how good he was. That 10-year stretch of golf is the best stretch of golf we have ever seen on the planet by anyone. I don't care what anyone says about Jack Nicklaus's record or anyone else. That 10-year stretch of golf was the best.

"And I don't know if anyone's going to emulate that at all, but I think people need to remember that. Because he has been and is the greatest player that has ever played this game, maybe not by records, but just by that 10-year stretch of golf that he did. No one, I think, played a 10-year stretch of golf remotely like he did. ... Sometimes you have to take the bigger picture and take the longer view of things.''

Nicklaus, Woods and Walter Hagen, who won 11 majors, are the only players with double-digit major totals. As great as Ben Hogan and Gary Player were, they could not get to 10. Nor could Tom Watson, who won the last of his eight majors at age 33. Palmer's seven majors came in a seven-year stretch that ended in 1964, when he was 34. Nobody has ever deemed any of their careers to be less than stellar, certainly not disappointing, even though the winning stopped before many thought it would.

For Tiger Woods, the winning might very well be over, a simple reality of longevity and inevitability. That's sports. That's life. And it shouldn't impact his accomplishments, his legacy.

Perhaps Woods wins enough tournaments to tie or break Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA Tour victories. Maybe he wins another major, which would be hailed as a remarkable accomplishment.

At this point, all of that really would be "gravy.'' And that's not such a bad thing.

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