Many in the golf world refer to the Players Championship as the fifth major, but the victory for Tiger Woods this past weekend at TPC Sawgrass won’t count in his quest to top the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Woods displayed a golf game that has eluded him since he last won a major, in 2008 at Torrey Pines on an injured knee. With Tiger now apparently at full health, he looks to be in good shape to end his winning drought in golf’s four most prestigious tournaments sometime soon. Will he reach or surpass the legendary mark of 18?
Tiger is only 37 and in tremendous physical shape, so he should be able to compete at a high level for at least another 15 years. However, he does have a history with injuries to consider, and he may not be able to contest every major over that time period. He’s also going on five years without winning one, and as a player who went through several droughts and swing changes over the course of his career, he knows how easy it is to lose the edge. He has come back to prove his doubters wrong before though, and was very impressive in his mastery of the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, where he never loved to play even at the peak of his powers.
Working in Tiger’s favor are the locations of the major championships in the next few years. He has already won at Augusta four times, and has come very close on several other occasions. The 2014 U.S. Open will be at Pinehurst, where Woods has played well twice but never won. Oakmont, perhaps the most difficult golf course in the country, will host the tournament in 2016. Woods finished second there to Ángel Cabrera in 2007.
Tiger’s last British Open win was in 2006 at Royal Liverpool, which will also host the oldest major again next summer. The following year, in 2015, it will return to St. Andrews, where Tiger has kissed the claret jug twice in years past. The 2014 PGA will be held at Valhalla, another course that Woods has won on, and in 2016 it goes to Baltusrol, where Tiger saw Phil Mickelson win his second major but played good golf and finished tied for fourth.
That means that Woods will play a course where he has won or finished in the top five in 10 of the next 16 majors. Even better for Tiger, his win at the Players showed that with his game at this level, he is a threat to win at any golf course. Woods has never played an event at Merion, the site of next month’s U.S. Open, but he will still enter as the favorite to win based on his form this year. Tiger has a tendency to win repeatedly at the golf courses he likes best, but if he can command his swing to shape the ball both right-to-left and left-to-right, as he did at the Players, there is no course in the world that is unfavorable for him.
Ultimately, the most difficult major for him to win might not be the 18th or 19th, but the 15th. As mentioned before, Tiger has gone through extended periods without winning a major, but this June will make it a full five years since his last win, the longest major drought of his career. The longer he goes without winning another, the more of a mental challenge it will become. If he can build on his incredible start and get that next major this season, it should be much easier for the next few to fall. With golfers well into their 50s regularly contending at majors these days, it seems that barring serious injury, Tiger Woods will end his career as the all-time leader in major championships won.