- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have been joined at the historical hip ever since the two played a practice round together at Augusta National in 1996, just before Woods turned pro. Tiger had been ordained the latest Next Nicklaus, and with a Jack-matching two U.S. Amateurs already in hand — he would add a third that summer — he definitely bore an uncanny resemblance.

A decade later, no one stands between Woods and Nicklaus. After turning Hoylake into his own personal Toylake, Tiger has now won more major championships than anybody but the Golden Bear. Depending on how you calculate these things, his total is either 11 or, if you count his three Amateurs, 14. The first number ties him with Walter Hagen, the latter pushes him past Bobby Jones.

Woods’ view of Nicklaus, in other words, is now unobstructed. All the other greats — Hagen, Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Sam Snead — are in his rearview mirror. It’s just Tiger and Jack … and Jack’s 18 professional majors, 20 overall.

And make no mistake, Nicklaus’ 18 pro majors are one of the most hallowed records in sports. When Woods putted out on the final hole Sunday to wrap up his third British Open victory, it was like Hank Aaron passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list — leaving only Babe Ruth ahead of him. (Or, for you hoops fans, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtaking Elvin Hayes and setting his sights on Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring mark.) Making the moment even more dramatic was its setting, Royal Liverpool, site of one of Jones’ major triumphs.

But eight majors are, after all, eight majors, so this could turn out to be a rather lengthy drum roll. It took Nicklaus 14 years to win his last eight, with No. 18 coming when he was 46. Woods, of course, won eight in a whirlwind five years stretching from the 1997 Masters to the 2002 U.S. Open, but even he isn’t likely to accomplish such a feat again. A more reasonable goal would be to try to break Jack’s record by the time he’s 40 — before his back or some other part of his anatomy gives out. He’s still just 30, which gives him plenty of time. (Plenty, that is, if you ignore the fact that only nine golfers have ever racked up eight majors in their entire careers.)

Nicklaus, too, won the British Open at 30, edging Doug Sanders in a playoff. That’s just one of the many parallels between Jack and Tiger that are beginning to pile up. By my count, there are 16 tournaments they both have won (though the names and/or courses may have changed). In addition to the four majors, the list includes the Mercedes Cup, the Western Open, the Memorial, Doral, the Disney, the Players Championship, the NEC Invitational, the Byron Nelson, the AT&T;, the BellSouth, the Buick Invitational and the World Cup. And get this: They’ve both won nine of those events multiple times.

Jack won two British Opens at St. Andrews; Tiger has won two British Opens at St. Andrews. Jack won a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach; so has Tiger. And let’s not forget the half-dozen green jackets Jack has slipped on at Augusta — to Tiger’s four. Tiger hasn’t just been chasing Jack, he’s been stalking him. It’s a wonder, really, that Jack hasn’t tried to get a restraining order.

One last bit of trivia: Nicklaus notched his 50th Tour victory at the PGA (in 1973). Woods might very well do the same. He has 49 titles — and the PGA will be played next month at Medinah, where he won the championship seven years ago. How eerie is that?

At one time, it seemed Woods might have trouble catching Nicklaus because he didn’t give himself as many chances to win majors as Jack did. The Golden Bear finished second in 19 Slams and third in nine others — 28 “almosts”; Tiger, on the other hand, has had just two seconds and three thirds — five “almosts.”

But Tiger, it turns out, is a better closer than Kyra Sedgwick. He’s had the third-round lead 11 times in a major and won every time. (Note: Jack’s record in those situations was a none-too-shabby 11-2.) You get even more of an appreciation of Tiger, though, when you realize that the “phenoms” that have followed him — Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Aaron Baddeley and Justin Rose, all of whom won pro tournaments before the age of 21 — are still looking for their first major championships.

And Tiger’s looking for his 12th. He has some nice opportunities coming up — Medinah, U.S. Opens at Torrey Pines in 2008, Bethpage Black in 2009 and Pebble the year after (all places he has already won). He’ll also have umpteen more cracks at Augusta.

The Bear Hunt is on in earnest. Let the countdown begin.

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