Can Tiger catch Jack? And other lingering questions over Woods’ legacy

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the Masters during the final round on Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the Masters during the final round on Sunday, April 14, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

It has been, what, a good 12 hours since we have given full attention to Tiger Woods. Too long, at any rate.

Now that the mushroom cloud from his Masters victory Sunday has settled just a bit, now that it is possible to ponder his return to greatness without getting lost in Hyperbole Forest, we can get to the serious, dispassionate business of legacy.

One side benefit of Woods’ victory is that it allows a re-examination of questions that had been in storage for the better part of a decade. Old debates thought long dead have been given life again.

Can Woods catch Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18 majors?

Once – OK, it was as late as Saturday – I would have dismissed that possibility as poppycock, bordering on balderdash. About the first time Woods grabbed his back in pain, it seemed Nicklaus’ record total of really big wins was untouchable. As unreachable as the top shelf at Home Depot.

Let’s acknowledge that Woods does need to pick up the pace a little bit. It was nearly 11 years between majors No. 14 and 15 for Woods. At that rate, he’d tie Nicklaus in 2052. He’d be 76 years old. Passing him 11 years later would be difficult, even for Woods.

But what Woods accomplished Sunday – aside from a victory that blew all the head covers off the game – was make all things possible again. The ceiling that we all had constructed over his head while he was dealing with, first, the fallout from his serial infidelity and then, the crumbling of his spine just collapsed.

Eighteen is still a tall order for a 43-year-old fellow who is playing on what soccer people refer to as extra time. Just how much longer can Woods go without the back or the knees or some other spot on his “Operation” game of a body become a real problem again? How difficult will it be to assert dominance the way he used to against the generation of fearless bombers that he spawned?

Eighteen is still doubtful.

Was this the finest Masters Sunday of them all?

This is the most subjective kind of question – all feel, no fact.

Was there in 1986 when Nicklaus won his last major at the age of 46.

Was there in in 2019 when Woods reminded the world of what it had been missing this last decade, making golf cool again.

Both men shared emotional hugs with their son afterward – the difference being that Nicklaus’ boy was on the bag while Woods’ is in elementary school.

Nicklaus in ’86 remains the one Masters that made me feel like I was stuttering while I typed, the one with a fog of history and improbability so dense that it clouded all rational attempt to describe what had just happened. But we have a close second.

How much did Sunday reignite the “Greatest Ever” conversation?

Nicklaus 18 majors. Woods 15.

Woods 81 PGA Tour victories. Nicklaus 73.

Nicklaus went 17 consecutive seasons with at least one Tour win. Woods 14.

Let’s make something clear here: This is not a humanitarian award, not one for best role model. Woods can’t win that one. It’s just about the golf.

One suggestion that always amuses is that Nicklaus couldn’t have had the depth of competition as did/does Woods. Why, all he did was go up against Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, all with at least a half-dozen major titles. I don’t think the Bear has anything to explain or to apologize for.

Nicklaus still wins this vote. But, all the precincts aren’t in yet. Heck, Woods is still campaigning.

Just how big was Woods’ comeback, relatively speaking?

Well, it wasn’t the most notable in his own sport. Ben Hogan, winning six majors after his body was crushed in an automobile accident, retired that dubious distinction.

The comeback competition in sports is fierce, which is another reason to love it. Mario Lemieux and Lance Armstrong beat cancer to come back. Niki Lauda was back in his race car six weeks after crashing and lapsing into a coma. Bethany Hamilton surfed on after losing an arm in a shark attack. Three Tommy John surgeries later, the Braves’ Jonny Venters still pitches (here, let’s mention Tommy John, who won 164 games after Himself surgery).

It’s probably best not to try to rank the indomitable spirit. It’s like trying to rank the most inspirational sunset. Just let yourself be moved by each.