The afternoon shadows were playing tricks on Tiger Woods's Sunday image. True, his unbuff peers hashed around with bodies as slim as flag pins and paunches like lowercase b's as Tiger strode among them with a silhouette built to intimidate: a muscular V-shaped back that made him a walking victory sign. Yet it was Tiger who seemed vulnerable. He had, of course, worn his customary red, but he looked more bloodshot than menacing, and he mustered only a 10-watt charge while Phil Mickelson rediscovered the putting stroke of his youth and took the Tour Championship at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club. In an awkward awards ceremony, Phil and Tiger stood on the 18th green together as frenemies. Phil held up the crystal trophy for the tournament title, while Tiger squirreled away a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup, the season-ending prize for cumulative effort (six Tour wins in Tiger's case). But without a major circled on it, isn't Tiger's calendar missing something?
This year proved that Tiger could dominate a season without doing Jack. He can bully his way through the whistle-stops on the PGA Tour and not gain ground on Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. And though Tiger has rationalized his '09 performance—repeatedly saying how proud he is of his consistency—being stalled at 14 majors must blow his beautiful mind. There is no arguing his genius. As Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," and Tiger has both. He has the ability to see trajectories and angles no one else sees, in the way that Annie Leibovitz envisions a tub of milk as a photo prop or Dick Fosbury saw a flop as a better way to jump.
But does Tiger's blend of physicality and intellect mean 19 majors? "Tiger needs someone to push him at this stage," says Padraig Harrington. "If I can get better, maybe I can push him." Still, Harrington adds, "I do believe he'll get there. Nothing is a given, but he is playing better than he has been. He averages one [major] a year, so...."
So, it's a done deal, right? Well, here is why Tiger will not make it past Jack (really): The Mike Douglas Show Effect: If he continues to win one major a year, Tiger will be 38 when he reaches No. 19. He is already a 33-year-old with heavy miles on a bandwagon that began to roll when he was a two-year-old lashing drives on national TV. Tiger has outlasted your average child star—lapping everyone from Danny Bonaduce to Freddy Adu—but isn't there an inevitable expiration date on prodigies? Jack took up golf at age 10. Whereas he swung aggressively into his 40s from industrial-size thighs, Tiger lashes with pec power that has, over the years, put a serious burden on his fragile knees.
The Persistent Flaw: For better and worse, Tiger is more stubborn than grass stains, holding grudges as motivational keepsakes (good tactic) but sticking with outdated equipment while other options might've been better (bad call). When his tolerance for the chatty Butch Harmon snapped, the intractable Tiger suffered a self-inflicted destiny interruptus. With Harmon, Tiger conjured eight majors from '97 through '02. Without him, he experienced a 10-major drought at his physical peak—precious time lost on the Jack trail. Tiger wanted to own his swing, to lift the hood on his mechanics in mid-round, and he turned to Hank Haney. Yes, Tiger can play Mr. Fix-It with his drives, and Haney won't violate the secret code of his boss's inner circle, but Tiger doesn't win majors by double digits anymore, clubbing down on his own fear factor, and that makes life easier for the competition.
The Patriots Syndrome: Only misery awaits anyone (or any team) attempting to break records thought to be unattainable, particularly in a 24/7 news cycle. The questioning starts as an are-we-there-yet? annoyance and finally snowballs into the kind of excruciating, isolating noise that leaves targets feeling as if they've been locked in a bell tower. It can make a genius go mad—even one in a hoodie. By the time Super Bowl XLII arrived in 2008, Bill Belichick's New England Patriots were weary from their pursuit of the '72 Dolphins' perfect season, beaten down by the pressure. The run-up to a record doesn't always end with a fizzle. (Roger Maris lost hair but topped Babe Ruth; Roger Federer cried from despair at the Australian Open in February but beat Pete Sampras's Grand Slam number at Wimbledon.) Tiger is a control freak's control freak, but not even he will be able to contain the locomotive of expectation should he reach No. 16 or No. 17.
Where does it all end? Tiger was at his best this year—off knee surgery, on his game. And yet gallantry and superiority left him with sixth-place ties at the Masters and U.S. Open, a missed cut at the British Open and a second at the PGA Championship, his first loss in a major after having a 54-hole lead. "You can't win them all, but the whole idea is to be there every time," says Tiger. "And if you are there each and every time, just like Jack seemed like he was, you're going to win your share." Tiger's take-home total has secured his legacy—both on the course and beyond it—but that doesn't mean it will add up to Jack.
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