AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - The Tiger Woods major watch, stagnant for so long that it had almost been abandoned, is back on and Jack Nicklaus might yet be proved correct.
As the years ticked by from 2008 and an injury-riddled Woods got stuck for more than a decade on 14 major titles, four short of Nicklaus’s record, the “Golden Bear” kept saying he still thought his mark was in jeopardy.
Such talk, while Woods battled a potentially career-ending back injury, was widely dismissed as little more than politeness from someone who could hardly say anything else.
But in winning the Masters at Augusta on Sunday to end an 11-year major drought, Woods crept within three of catching Nicklaus.
“Nobody wants their record to be broken, but I certainly wouldn’t want Tiger to be hurt and not able to do it,” Nicklaus told Golf Channel. “He’s got me shaking in my boots!”
Though the odds are still against 43-year-old Woods, who is racing against Father Time as well as a fused spine that could cause more problems, it is no longer inconceivable to imagine him winning three or four majors.
The next two are at venues well suited to his game and where he has won — the PGA Championship at Bethpage and the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach where he triumphed by a massive 15 strokes.
Then it is the British Open, at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, where nobody in this year’s field has played a tournament.
His peers think Sunday’s victory could loosen the dam wall, if not completely open the floodgates.
Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, neighbours in south Florida who often play with Woods, expressed a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
“It keeps 18 (majors) in play,” Fowler told a small group of reporters amid what for Augusta National amounted to frenzied scenes outside the clubhouse as thousands of spectators congregated hoping to catch a glimpse of the new champion.
“I don’t doubt that this is going to be his most special one yet. To get his 15th after a long wait, after a lot of years away from competitive golf, being in a position where he wasn’t sure he was going to play again, it’s cool stuff.”
Thomas acknowledged he had needed to be convinced Woods could win another major.
“I thought today was going to be big in how he handled it,” said the 2017 PGA Championship winner.
“He’s been there a lot, more than anyone, but it had been a while since he had a chance to win here.”
Joint Masters runner-up Brooks Koepka expects Woods to challenge Nicklaus’s record.
“I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think,” he said.
More immediately, Woods can become the most prolific winner in PGA Tour history.
He now has 81 victories, one short of Sam Snead, whose record could be tied as soon as next month, when Woods is likely to make his next appearance, at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Then it will be the PGA Championship from May 16-19, where the focus will be back on the pursuit of Nicklaus’s record.
Woods, however, preferred to savour his fifth Green Jacket.
“I don’t know if he’s worried or not,” Woods said when asked whether Nicklaus should be concerned at being caught.
“I’m just enjoying 15.”
Reporting by Andrew Both, editing by Ed Osmond