Tiger Woods Won’t Win 19 Majors — Nicklaus’s Record is Safe

So, Tiger Woods is going to take an “indefinite” amount of time off from golf. Assuming that sooner rather than later Woods comes back to the sport he has dominated for more than a decade – I’m guessing he is back by this year’s Master’s or U.S. Open –  let’s ask the question he likely cares about most: Will Tiger win more major tournaments in what’s left of his career than his idol Jack Nicklaus did in his?

To refresh your memory, Tiger, who is about to turn 34 years old, has won 14 major tournaments; Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors in his career. Woods has to win five more, for a total of 19, to beat Nicklaus. Given the pace at which Tiger has won major tournaments in the past that might seem an easy task – there are 4 major tournaments a year, and he can probably be competitive into his early 40s.

I’m not so sure though. First, Woods is 34. Admittedly, 34 today isn’t what 34 was in 1974 when Jack was Tiger’s age. Players today are stronger, fitter and generally have better self-awareness and knowledge of their swing. And yes, even though Nicklaus won most of his tournaments when he was younger than Tiger is now, Nicklaus did win 6 more majors after turning 34. To that way of thinking, Tiger has an edge on Nicklaus and should squeak through, even if he misses a year here.


But I’m not convinced. There are at least four reasons to think Tiger won’t surpass Nicklaus’s major wins record:

  1. Tiger is increasingly rusty. He missed most of 2008, and played unevenly through chunks of 2009, even if he was close in the majors. That rustiness will only get worse with age and with this latest layoff. By way of comparison, while Nicklaus had hip and back health issues, he was never away from golf in his prime for long stretches the way Tiger has been in his – and Nicklaus still saw a serious decline in his competitiveness and dominance after hitting his mid-30s.
  2. Tiger is roughed-up. His knee is just one example of how he is not the same player physically he was a few years ago. The modern power game takes an immense toll on a player’s body, making the higher level of fitness a wash, at best, compared to players of prior generations who didn’t subject their spines to such violent and twisting centrifugal forces.
  3. Tiger is less focused. Nicklaus wasn’t the same player after he got married and had kids, and he didn’t have the off-course drama that now accompanies Woods. The same thing will happen to Woods, doubly so as he puts more pressure on himself to win knowing that it is actuarially certain he has had more looks at majors already in his career than he will be offered in future.
  4. Tiger plays a tougher field. The field is bigger, closer to parity, and more global now than it was in Nicklaus’s era. There are simply too many wonderful players, most of them younger than Tiger, many who hit it further than he does, and are coming on strong.

So, I don’t think Woods will do it. He may win a few more majors – he is sufficiently talented that he can win on desire, despite a messed-up mind and a faltering body – but I don’t believe he will ever again be the dominant player he once was. Through mistakes, frailties (both physical and emotional), and more than a little bad luck, I think it’s highly unlikely Woods will win enough majors to pass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.

Agree or disagree? Post below.

[Update] Another way to compare players is to look at major tournaments won per year by Nicklaus and Woods before and after turning 34 (to pick Woods’ imminent age). Before turning 34 Woods won a major at the record rate of 1.1/yr; the pre-34 Nicklaus won at the rate of 0.9/yr, which is equally impressive. But after turning 34 Nicklaus’s success rate tumbled to 0.5/yr. Assuming something similar happens to Woods, which is probable as he ages, winning another 5 majors could take ten years or more, making him 44 before he passed Nicklaus. I don’t see it.