Jack Nicklaus has always believed a healthy Tiger Woods would equal or surpass his record of 18 major championships, even if he was joking when he said the prospect had him “shaking in his boots”.
But while Nicklaus can enjoy the chase from the comfort of the sidelines, golf’s current generation will rightly be concerned about having to deal with a rejuvenated Woods following his 15th major victory in a memorable Masters at Augusta National.
The likes of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth cannot say they were not warned either, Woods leading last year’s Open Championship with eight holes to play and finishing runner-up to Koepka at the US PGA with a closing 64.
The 43-year-old then held off the challenge of McIlroy and world number one Justin Rose to win the Tour Championship in Atlanta last September, his 80th PGA Tour title and first since 2013.
“The win at East Lake was a big confidence booster for me because I had come close last year a couple of times and I didn’t quite do it,” Woods said.
“I didn’t do it at Tampa. I didn’t do it at The Open Championship. I was a little better at the PGA, but still I didn’t win.
“East Lake was a big step for me, confirming that I could still win out here and against the best players because obviously it’s the hottest 30 guys for the year.
“To be able to do that against Rory and Rosey there gave me a lot of confidence going into this year, and I said, you know, just keep building on it and let’s try to get the mind and body peaking towards Augusta.
“So my last three major championships have been pretty good, so that in itself gives me a lot of confidence going down the road.”
Asked about the prospect of equalling or beating the record of Nicklaus, who amazingly also finished runner-up in 19 majors, Woods added: “I really haven’t thought about that yet.
“I’m sure that I’ll probably think of it going down the road. Maybe, maybe not. But right now it’s a little soon and I’m just enjoying 15.”
Numbers 16 and 17 could arrive in the next two months with the US PGA Championship being staged at Bethpage, where Woods won the US Open in 2002, and this year’s US Open held at Pebble Beach, scene of his 15-shot triumph in the same event two years earlier.
“A couple of years ago I didn’t know if I was going to play golf again,” added Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery in April 2017.
“So to get back to this point where I have an opportunity to play and compete, have won twice and one being a major championship, it is a pretty surreal feeling to be honest.”
Woods needed a nerve block just to be able to attend the Champions Dinner two years ago and told Nicklaus “I’m done,” but Nicklaus never doubted a healthy Woods would win again and challenge his record.
“I don’t ever pull against anybody,” the 79-year-old said.
“Nobody wants their record to be broken but I certainly wouldn’t want Tiger to be hurt and not be able to do it and now he’s pretty healthy and playing well and I wish him well.
“I was sitting there watching saying ‘he’s playing so much better than anybody else, he deserves to win’. You watch how smart he played, how he used his head at 12 and put the ball in the middle of the green, how he hit the ball left of the pin on 13, hit the middle of the green on 14 and 15.
“Every shot I saw him play was a smart shot and when you’ve got a guy who plays smart shots like that and plays them well, he should be your winner. You just watched it all day long and thought ‘this is a man who is possessed, he’s absolutely under total control and he’s going to get it done’. And he did.
“I kept saying I think he will (win another major). It all depended on Tiger’s health. I don’t think he needed to worry about his driver, he never hit the ball straight anyway. From somewhere he got it up around the green.
“Tiger is such a great putter, has such a great short game, such great distance control with his irons – the best I’ve ever seen – and if you get a guy that can do that he’s going to win again. And he topped it off this week by driving the ball well with it. It was a very, very special week for him.”