- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tiger Woods is making the turn. From the birth of his first child to the projected midpoint of his major career, 2007 is likely to be a bellwether season for golf’s unquestioned king.

When Woods told the world on his 31st birthday that wife Elin was pregnant, most folks simply smiled at the somewhat anticipated life step. Jack Nicklaus won all 18 of his majors with wee ones at home, they reasoned. Fatherhood isn’t likely to influence Tiger’s game any more than did his marriage in 2004.

Don’t be so certain.

Woods was an only child and enjoyed a deeper and closer relationship with his father, Earl, than any high-profile athlete in recent memory. When Earl died of cancer last May, Woods lost his closest friend and confidant. Tiger isn’t likely to be the stereotypical throwback father, the breadwinning patriarch primarily responsible for bedtime stories, discipline and delivering the occasional life lesson.

Tiger doesn’t have a third gear. He’s an all-in guy, a mortal lock to embrace the moment-to-moment duties of the modern diaper daddy. Anyone who thinks Woods is going to let some nanny, or even Elin, assume the primary parenting responsibilities simply doesn’t know the man.

“My father was always there,” Woods said on the subject earlier this season. “He was always there if I wanted to talk to him about anything and everything. He would stop what he was doing. If he brought home a bunch of work and he had to get it done that night, he didn’t care.

“He would stop and talk to me about whatever I wanted to talk about for however long — sometimes it would be hours — and then he’d go back to his work and work until 3 or 4 in the morning and get it done. But I was the priority. That to me is something that I will certainly do.”

In the past, his top priority was to massage his game into peaking four times a season. No longer. Priority one is now Tiger II, boy or girl. If Elin looks ready to deliver the third week of July, which is quite possible, Woods won’t even bother crossing the Atlantic to defend his British Open title. There will be no beeper in the bag and jet on the runway a la Phil Mickelson at the 1999 U.S. Open; Tiger will simply ship the claret jug to Carnoustie and skip a major for the first time in his pro career, snapping a streak dating back to his debut victory at the 1997 Masters.

“If she’s going to have it during the week of the Open, I just don’t go,” Woods said. “That’s the most important thing, not a golf tournament.”

Now, nobody is suggesting the 12-time major champion is going to suddenly lose interest in chasing down Nicklaus. Nor will a shift in focus toward fatherhood change the fact that Tiger’s top form is the best the game has ever seen. But all proof to the contrary, Woods is supposedly human. His work ethic and all-consuming commitment to domination are bound to slip, if only a little.

After all, if the historical trends that have governed the game’s greats for more than 100 years hold true for Woods, this is the season in which he begins the downward half of his major career. Among the 12 other players with six or more slam titles, the average median age of major victory is 31.7. Theoretically, that means that Woods’ career in the majors will reach its midpoint at this season’s British Open. If his career follows the longevity and peak track of golf’s other Goliaths, then you can get a fairly reasonable estimate of his eventual major totals by doubling his number of major triumphs following the British Open.

Even if he starts the season 0-for-3, nobody’s scoffing at a Golden Bear-burying projection of 24 majors. Only 25 players in history boast that many regular PGA Tour wins, much less that kind of major hardware. But it is a bit bracing to realize that history says Tiger’s career is half over. Bracing, but hardly a shock given his two knee surgeries (2002 and 2003) and two complete swing overhauls (1998 and 2004).

“My buddies and I always kid that I live in dog years out here,” Woods said when asked about this week’s 10th anniversary of his major breakout at the 1997 Masters. “That seems like forever ago. It’s hard to believe it’s just been 10 years.”

Perhaps what’s hardest to believe is that the PGA Tour still hasn’t experienced the anticipated Tiger Effect. Early in his career, many conjectured that Woods would become the victim of his own success, as his extraordinary fame and the game’s corresponding leap in popularity would eventually introduce a wave of superior young athletes to the PGA Tour fray. Thus far, there is no evidence of the Tiger Effect, though Woods still believes that wave is approaching.

“It takes time. It’s like a pyramid effect,” Woods said. “You have to have a big base in order to have one or two get to the top. The bigger the base, the better your chances are. … I believe it is coming.”

Much of the golf world has given up on locating a rival for Woods among the current crop of challengers. Nicklaus himself was particularly harsh during an appearance at the Accenture Match Play when assessing the rivalry catalogue of usual suspects.

“Do we have a lot of guys who are trying to contend?” Nicklaus said. “I can’t make up my mind. Do we have a whole bunch of really good players today, and Tiger is way up beyond them? I can’t decide where Arnold [Palmer] and Gary [Player] and I were relative to Tiger, and I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. What I do know is the guys just don’t seem to be able to beat Tiger when they have to.

“[Ernie] Els, Vijay [Singh], Retief [Goosen], Phil [Mickelson] — they just don’t have Tiger’s stature. If you look at the guys I competed against, Palmer had seven majors, [Lee] Trevino had six, Player had nine, [Tom] Watson had eight. They all knew how to win and had done so time and time again.”

In some respects, Nicklaus’ griping sounds like a combination of fogyism and sour grapes. But juxtaposition isn’t kind to Woods’ would-be rivals.

In the 19 seasons that constitute Nicklaus’ prime (1962-80), Nicklaus won 22.4 percent (17) of the available 76 majors, not far behind Woods’ mark of 12 (30 percent) in 40 professional starts. The disparity in success among their name competition, however, is striking.

During Nicklaus’ prime, 12 other players won multiple majors, thus qualifying as name players. During Tiger’s tenure, five other players have won multiple majors, once again representing a similar pool of elite players given the halved time frame.

The difference is that of the 12 multiple winners of the Nicklaus era, 18 of their 35 major triumphs came when Nicklaus either finished in the top three or within three shots of the winner, meaning name players faced down Nicklaus 51.4 percent of the time en route to victory. Tiger’s five name competitors (Mickelson, Singh, Els, Goosen and Mark O’Meara) have similarly faced down Woods just three times in 12 victories or 25 percent of the time.

Translation: When Tiger’s in the mix, today’s name players melt.

“You don’t have to go out there and light it up to win majors,” Nicklaus said. “I tried to put myself in a position where I didn’t beat myself. You let those other guys do that. And that’s what Tiger does better than anyone.”

Nicklaus actually had some rivals who can claim to have gotten the better of the Bear on balance. Nicklaus finished second to both Trevino and Watson four times each, and only one of those eight events was decided by more than two strokes. No name player can claim to have gotten the better of Woods more than once, much less on balance.

There’s little difference between the winning final-round scoring averages of Nicklaus (69.9) and Woods (69.3). The massive difference between Sundays then and now is that Woods’ final-round playing partners have averaged a ghastly 72.75 strokes on decision day.

Perhaps Woods is simply that intimidatingly awesome. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a challenger to elevate his game to levels only Woods seems capable of attaining. Perhaps Tiger’s only real rival will be the erosion of his own game. Perhaps fatherhood and Father Time will begin poking holes in his prowess this season. Or perhaps Tiger will mock the odds once again, newfound perspective and maturity carrying him to heights only he has the audacity to imagine.

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