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One by one, the great numbers of sports drop off. Have you noticed that? The number 61 used to be one of the great ones. It, of course, represented the 61 homers Roger Maris hit in 1961. Sixty-one has lost its magic. The home run record is now 73 (or whatever) and it's debased and, anyway, Sammy Sosa alone surpassed 61 homers three times.
One thousand rushing yards used to mean something in the NFL—but last year 15 running backs topped that. Ten seconds flat was once the 100-meter world record. Now all the best male sprinters routinely break that barrier.
Of course, there is always 56, Joe DiMaggio's untouchable hitting streak, but I would argue that right now the most important number in sports is 18. That's the number of major championships Jack Nicklaus won. And Tiger Woods's bumpy climb toward 18 is the most dramatic and thrilling chase going.
Nicklaus, of course, didn't realize that 18 would become his sport's holy grail. As he told me, "If I had known that Tiger Woods was going to come along, I would have tried to win 21 or 22 to make it harder on him." He was joking, but also on point: Nicklaus finished second in a major 19 times. In many ways his heartbreaking losses—Tom Watson's chip-in at Pebble Beach, Watson's beating him at Turnberry in the Duel in the Sun, the U.S. Open in which Lee Trevino threw a rubber snake at Nicklaus and then beat him in a playoff—are more famous than some of his victories.
Still, in a sport in which Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins (among others) are Hall of Famers while winning just one major, Nicklaus's 18 is beautiful and bewitching and almost unapproachable. He won his first U.S. Open when he was 22, his last Masters when he was 46, and over that quarter century he played with a consistency that no golfer has ever matched. He missed just one major cut from 1969 through '84; he finished in the top 10 in 35 of the 40 majors of the 1970s; and he was in contention almost every time.
Even Tiger Woods, in the heart of his career, could not match Nicklaus's persistent brilliance. From 1997 through 2008, Woods finished out of the top 10 on 17 occasions. But Woods's greatness was different from Nicklaus's. Tiger may not have been as consistent, but when he played well he almost always won. When Nicklaus's name appeared on the top of the leader board, the other great golfers of the time—Watson, Trevino, Ray Floyd, Johnny Miller and so on—seemed to think, "Oh boy, Jack's up there, this is going to be fun."
When Tiger's name appeared on top of the leader board, the other golfers seemed to think, "Wonder what second-place money is this week?"
Nicklaus says that Woods, at his best, played golf better than anyone who ever lived. That summit belongs to Tiger; it's hard to imagine any golfer ever being better than he was in the brightness of his youth. But Jack still owns 18—and Woods would have to concede that with 18 goes the title of Best Golfer Ever.
See, 18 is not about outdriving the world or hitting flag sticks with towering iron shots or sinking 20-foot putts with the championship on the line. Those are great moments along the way. No, 18 is about enduring. Eighteen is about beating the old men when you're young, and the young men when you're old. Eighteen is about overcoming memories of failure and bad breaks that build up over the years. Eighteen is about prevailing over bad backs and bad bounces and golf balls that get buried in the sand.
Tiger Woods, when he was a kid, had a poster on his wall that celebrated Nicklaus's majors. Woods's dream—and his goal—was to surpass his hero's number. For a long time, it looked as though Woods would do so with ease. He won his first major at 21 (younger than Nicklaus), his 10th by the time he was 29 (Nicklaus was 32), and his 14th in 2008 at age 32 (Nicklaus was 35).