Tiger Woods begins the most important season of his career on Thursday at Torrey Pines, a place where, almost six years ago now, he won his last and perhaps most impressive major championship, in a playoff and on one leg.
This is the most important season of Tiger's career because it is the current season, and every year and every major that passes intensifies the solitary pursuit of Tiger Woods' career: breaking Jack Nicklaus' major championships record. As the intervening time between major wins grows longer, Tiger has gone off a previous script and emphasized other achievements. That said, getting to 19 total majors, has been the single, realistic and reachable target of his career since he was at least 29. Now at 38 with a spate of injuries in tow, he idles at 14 total majors.
If the majors record is all that's really mattered for almost a decade, and all that really will matter until it's matched, broken, or Woods retires, what then, do we make of the other 349 non-major competition days of the year? That's the predicament created by the past brilliance and dominance of Tiger, who is either running up the score at comfortable non-major events with a win or fading from form, still searching for answers with another rebuilt swing if he loses. The five wins last season would be a career year for every other active golfer in the world, save one or two. They were victories at marquee events with deep, loaded fields that he wiped away. But these marquee events are places where he's already won so much, that the importance and relevance of the win was somehow diminished because this is Tiger Woods, and a win at Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill, The Players, or Firestone should be just another checked box during a Tiger Woods season.
There are, of course, other things to play for during those non-major weeks. Tiger arrives at Torrey Pines as an overwhelming favorite to repeat and win his ninth tournament on the South Course. A win this week would be the 80th of the his PGA Tour career, putting him just two shy of Sam Snead's record of 82. Chasing that number was thought unimaginable a decade ago, but here's Tiger, two wins shy and 10 years ahead of the pace set by Snead. He doesn't need to win another tournament, whether it's a major or the Frys.com Open, for another decade and he would still be on the same pace as Snead was to get to 82. It's more likely, however, that he matches Snead before we ever get to Augusta, with fresh 2014 meat ahead of him at Torrey, Doral, Bay Hill, and perhaps the Honda Classic.
The 82 number is astonishing, and Woods will obviously blow through it and probably get to 100 before he's done on Tour. Whether people are aware of it or not, he's playing for that record, which should be almost as impressive as the majors total. But Tiger is already considered one of the two greatest golfers ever, even if he's still got 12 more good years until he's eligible for the senior circuit. There's very little left for Tiger to prove, particularly at events like this week's Farmers Insurance Open.
Analytics in golf are improving, but the numbers are not at an advanced stage despite and they're not in widespread use. This makes comparisons of golfers playing in the same era tough, and comparisons of golfers from one era to the next, with all the technology changes over the years, an almost foolish exercise. The lack of data results in a proliferation of sportswritery takes on legacy, and that's the critical but nebulous lens Tiger has been and will be playing under for the last 20 years of his career.
The standard measurement is wins, and then an arbitrary weight assigned for major wins. Is one major worth five regular old wins? We saw that debate unfold last year when Tiger's season trumped Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott for Player of the Year honors. Thanks to tournaments like the Farmers Insurance Open, Tiger will finish with the most wins in golf history. But because we're now boxed in to rely on just one rudimentary metric, the chase of Nicklaus and 19 majors is really all that's left. There's no real analog for this in any other sport.
It's an uncompromising spot for Woods, who receives added scrutiny all along the way because, well, he's often petty and an unrelenting asshole (most recently and unsurprisingly refusing Golf Channel interviews because of the comments made by analyst Brandel Chamblee. When it comes to former Stanford athletes, I'll take the entertaining and forthright Richard Sherman, who is embraceable compared to the typical frosty drone that is Tiger). Woods already has his titles, awards, and the tag as the one who played the best stretch of golf in the sport's history. But all those accomplishments so early, and his repeated statements that the majors record was his target, have now created this unworkable standard for the second half of his career. If he doesn't win this week -- a tournament in which he's one of 156 golfers, mind you -- there will be murmurs that he's not the old Tiger and, at 38, he just doesn't have the consistent form to be what he once was and catch Jack. If he does win to break his own record of seven victories at the same PGA Tour event (which he set at THREE different tournaments last year), it will be another mark on the scoreboard, a checked box, and a shrug for another non-major win at one in the limited set of courses he's most comfortable.
Compared to the first three non-Tiger weeks of the season, the ratings will skyrocket and we'll all watch because he's a polarizing force and the most popular, for good or bad, athlete in the world. It's the start of another season in a pursuit that's become the biggest story in sports. But what's left for Tiger to gain anymore from these tournaments he already owns, especially once Snead's mark is dispatched, is marginal.