Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Golf [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012
The other record Tiger is chasing

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

BETHESDA, Md. -- When Tiger Woods' obit is written many years from now, Jack Nicklaus will probably be mentioned somewhere in the first couple of sentences. The front-page New York Times story will record the final results of Tiger's chase of Jack's record of 18 majors.

And someplace buried deep under the lede, it will almost certainly say that Tiger bested Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA Tour wins. Of course, Babe Ruth will have an eminent presence in Hank Aaron's obit someday. Even with their assorted scandals, Pete Rose, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds will always be linked to the men whose records they surpassed.

It comes with the territory in the record-breaking business.

But Roger Maris, Ruth, Aaron and Ty Cobb never had the late Snead's misfortune of having their records practically ignored. When Tiger tied Jack's mark of 73 wins at the Memorial earlier this month, inching nine victories closer to Snead's record, it barely registered as a major milestone for the future Hall of Famer.

After each of Tiger's two wins this year, the main question that arose was what these tournaments meant for him at the upcoming majors. More and more, especially as the 36-year-old former Stanford star inches toward 40, every regular event he plays is a prelude to the majors.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods needs just nine PGA Tour victories to tie the record set by "Slammin'" Sam Snead.

On Tuesday, before his first practice round at the AT&T National at Congressional, Tiger tried to put some perspective on the big four.

"Why was Pete Sampras' record [14 Grand Slam wins] so much greater than what Jimmy Connors [100-plus wins] has done?" Tiger said. "I think that's there so much more media coverage and more attention on major championships. Certainly that's something that wasn't exactly in Jack's day and obviously prior to him.

"Majors are a harder event because, one, you're going to have the best fields, and two, you're going to have the most difficult setups that we play all year."

Yet Tiger has a major appreciation of Snead, who had wins in four different decades.

"You compete against [Ben] Hogan and [Byron] Nelson your entire playing career, those are two tough guys to beat, and he did it," Tiger said.

Much has been made through the years about the differences between the eras in which Tiger and Jack won their majors. Having to play against Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Tom Watson in his prime, Jack might have had to contend with a more formidable group of players at the top of their games, but Tiger didn't face slouches in Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh in his best years. Besides, it's always difficult to compare different eras. For the most part, the balls, clubs and golf courses are hard to balance.

Yet the pressure that Tiger faces with the 24/7, 365-days-a-year fascination with the majors is far more intense than what Nicklaus saw in his great career. That's why every week that Tiger plays isn't simply another tournament -- it's a buildup to the majors. Few people remember that Tiger won six times in 2009 and had 14 top-10 finishes in 16 events, dominating the game. But they know he was shut out at the majors.

Still, Tiger smartly views regular tour wins as a part of his progression, something like very important preliminaries to the larger events. On Tuesday, he recalled not having much success at the majors in 1997 and 1998 and then winning a few tournaments in '99 before he earned his first PGA over Sergio Garcia at Medinah.

In 2003 and '04, he had a combined six wins, but didn't get a major. However, he would take two majors in each of the next two years.

This week Tiger, who didn't compete in the '11 U.S. Open at Congressional because of knee and Achilles injuries, will face a golf course that promises to play a lot faster than the wet and defenseless track that Rory McIlroy decimated with a record 16-under-par total.

"I like it quick," Tiger said, "because it certainly puts a premium on shaping shots, and more than anything, keeping the ball under the hole. We've seen what this place can do when it gets soft and what the guys can shoot."

At Olympic, Tiger said that his chipping and putting hurt him on the weekend.

"I didn't particularly chip or putt well that week, something that I had done at Memorial," he said. "I didn't make anything from 15 to 20 feet. I was playing away from a lot of flags, lag putting, but I didn't make anything. I need to hit the ball a little bit closer than I did that week."

Tiger also admitted that his short game has suffered with his focus on rebuilding his golf swing.

"Eventually, I get to a point where the full game becomes natural feeling and I can repeat it day after day, and I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again, " he said.

You know it's early in the tournament week because Tiger is sporting a goatee. He has groomed it over the past several days while looking after his two kids, 5-year-old Sam Alexis and 3-year-old Charlie Axel. But by Thursday, when the first round starts, the 14-time major champion will be clean-shaven to show a stern game face.

It's the same look that he wears at the majors and in all his warm-ups and practice sessions. "Some guys like to play their way into shape and play, " he said. "They don't really practice a lot. I'm one of those guys that just really enjoys practicing."

Even if this week's Congressional is viewed by many as practice or a preamble to bigger things that could happen for Tiger the rest of the summer at the British Open and the PGA, it could move him another step closer to catching Slammin' Sam's enduring but underappreciated record.