Right now the major-championship scoreboard looks like this: Nicklaus 20, Woods 10. Or if you don't count the U.S. Amateur: Nicklaus 18, Woods 7. Either way, Woods is only 26, still improving and definitely in the passing lane. He has won six of the last 10 majors, including the Tiger Slam—all four consecutively, but not in the same year. Jack's record looks as if it's perched next to a row of dominoes, and he knows it. "I think he'll pass me," Nicklaus says. "As long as he keeps his interest, and he's very committed to what he's doing."
An informal survey of players last week found that no one has ruled out a Woods Grand Slam this year. Most of the players surveyed said the three remaining venues—Bethpage; Muirfield for the July 18-21 British Open; and Hazeltine National, outside Minneapolis, for the Aug. 15-18 PGA Championship—perfectly suit Woods. "His chances are darned good this year," says John Cook. " Bethpage Black is about 8,000 yards [7,214, actually] and par-70. Unless it's firm and fast, that's going to eliminate lots of guys. Muirfield is right up Tiger's alley, and Hazeltine, good God, is another one with 1,000-yard par-4s, and par-5s that are unreachable except for about four guys."
Bethpage, hosting its first major, is a total unknown, but Woods said he planned to sneak in for a visit sometime before the Open. Muirfield last hosted the British Open in 1992, when Nick Faldo edged Cook, and at 6,963 yards is considered to be a course for shotmaking, another Woods forte. Hazeltine National is considerably longer now (7,360 yards) than when it last held a major, the 1991 U.S. Open, which was won by Payne Stewart at 7,149 yards.
"Hazeltine's going to favor the long hitter, for sure," says Tim Herron, a Minnesotan. The PGA of America says par will be 72, and three of the four par-5s will be longer than 580 yards, including the monstrous 3rd, a 636-yarder. Tom Lehman, another native son, says the par-3s are the best holes at Hazeltine, but he agrees with Herron. "The best players hit it so straight now," he says, "I don't see short hitters doing anything in the big tournaments anymore."
Aside from shotmaking and length, what sets Woods apart is his focus. "We're seeing a once-in-a-generation player, maybe even more than that," says Cook. "He's stronger emotionally than anyone else, and there's not much that he has to stress over. Getting from the locker room to the practice tee and then back to the 1st tee, that's the most stressful time in his life."
Woods didn't have to follow in Nicklaus's footsteps during the final round of the Memorial—he played in the twosome immediately ahead of the 62-year-old tournament host. Nicklaus's week had gone well. He decided to enter his own tournament at the last minute and then opened with a surprising one-under 71, his best 18 in a regular Tour event in two years. That put him three shots ahead of Woods. After making the cut with a 74 on Friday (to Tiger's 70), Nicklaus put up another 71 in the third round while Woods shot a 72. Nicklaus needled Woods on the practice range while they were warming up on Sunday. "I told him that I'd give him a little room to get out in front of us so I wouldn't drive into him," Nicklaus said.
What gas Nicklaus had left, he left on the range. He stumbled home with a 79, hitting three shots into the water on die front nine. "[My wife] shook me at seven this morning to get up, and I didn't move," Nicklaus said later. "I was really tired. It's the first time in a year I can remember not getting up in the night to go to the bathroom."
Woods said he planned to go home and relax for a while, evaluate what parts of his game need work and then draw up a plan for Bethpage. As for last week's good finish after a poor start, Woods said, "I felt as if I wasn't very far off."
What a coincidence. Neither is the U.S. Open.