Golf needs a Tiger Woods victory

GULLANE, Scotland -- Gary Player was racewalking out of Muirfield, home of his first of three Open Championship titles, when he started a spirited debate with himself around the best sports bar question in golf.

Tiger or Jack?

"Tiger Woods is the most talented man that ever played golf," Player declared.

More talented than Nicklaus, fellow big-three titan?

Player stopped for a reporter on his way to his idling car to ponder the question.

"Well, I'd say yes," he said. "But who's the better of the two? I don't know. It will rest on the record. Whoever wins the most majors in time will be recognized as the best."

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The interest in golf rises when Tiger Woods is near the lead in, or winning, majors.

Tiger has 14, still a long par-5 away from Jack's record of 18. As he's reminded on an hourly basis, Woods hasn't won a big one in five years. Five years that seem like 30.

"I'd lay it at 50-50 that Tiger passes him," Player said. "He's a young man; why shouldn't he? Tiger and Ben Hogan are the two most focused players I ever saw in my life. If Tiger learns to straighten his driver out, he will pass Nicklaus.

"And if he doesn't straighten out his driver, he won't."

Golf needs Tiger to straighten out his driver, his irons and his putter on a Grand Slam weekend. Golf has seen enough of Woods winning the minors. The sport needs him to get back to winning the majors, back to hunting down the Golden Bear.

The guardians of the game will tell you that everything has been A-OK since the sex scandal and injuries broke Woods down and allowed every Tom, Dick and Rory to win majors. They'll talk about the healthy purses and TV contracts and a post-Woods future that looks bright in the hands of a Generation Next featuring young, hip, athletic talents.

But whom are they kidding? Golf is a far more interesting and ratings-friendly place when Woods is winning -- or at least threatening to win -- on major championship Sundays.

Golf isn't the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball but a second-tier form of entertainment. The average sports fan -- not the guy who knows the top five greens-in-regulation leaders or lives for late-night Golf Channel reruns -- is one who cares about golf four times a year.

"If you walk up to five people," said Joe LaCava, Tiger's caddie, "four of them will tell you 'I don't even watch golf if Tiger's not in the tournament.' So that right there tells you all you need to know."

Of course, LaCava is paid to be loyal to the brand. But if he weren't Tiger's caddie, he would be an average Joe sports fan, maybe even a talk-radio caller, a guy who would buy an All-Star Game ticket to see Matt Harvey drill Robinson Cano or to see Mariano Rivera receive a Citi Field welcome worthy of his one-of-a-kind career.

LaCava knows golf can compete with the heavyweight leagues, and come across as the biggest event around, only when a transcendent figure carries it. Adam Scott winning the Masters and Justin Rose winning the U.S. Open for their first Grand Slam victories make for good copy within the narrow boundaries of the game but not for stories that resonate with the masses.

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Tiger Woods hasn't stared down a major in five years. Will he break through at Muirfield?

Woods winning No. 15, ending his personal drought and resuming his chase of Nicklaus would make this Open Championship something midsummer baseball and the rest couldn't touch.

"Phil [Mickelson] winning would help to a lesser degree," LaCava said, "but yeah, Tiger winning a major would bring a lot of people back to watching golf. Why does he bring them out? It's the legend more than anything, the shot-making, how he wins golf tournaments.

"He does it every particular way. He can hit shots out of the rough, he can make 30-footers, he can hit a great drive when he needs to. But it really goes back to the legend. Everyone knows what he's done, and they think they know what he's after even though nobody really knows. I don't even know and I caddie for the guy. People say he's after Jack's record, but he's never once said that to me in a year and a half of working for him."

Some things don't need to be spoken. Woods posted Nicklaus' records on his childhood walls and made it his life's work to get to 19 majors and beyond. Tiger became the world's most famous athlete in that pursuit, and it wasn't long ago when people wondered whether he would steamroll past Nicklaus and win 25.

That was then, and this is most definitely now. Tiger's reckless behavior off the course, and wayward aim on it, stripped him of his aura of invincibility, and the injuries didn't help. Now he's recovering from an elbow problem that he says is behind him and speaking hopefully of a breakthrough this weekend while playing a style of golf -- links golf -- he positively adores.

"Even though I haven't won a major championship in five years," Woods said, "I've been there in a bunch of them where I've had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I'll get some."

Eleven years ago, Woods lost his crack at a calendar-year Grand Slam at Muirfield by shooting 81 in freezing, third-round rain. He returned the next day and shot 65 to finish six strokes back.

Golf could really use the 65 Tiger this weekend, not the 81 Tiger. Right now, the sport might remind some of the NBA of 1994 and '95, during Michael Jordan's bush-league baseball sabbatical.

Jordan was gone only 18 months and started adding to his collection of rings and parades right away in '96. His old friend, Woods, still hasn't rediscovered his postseason touch, and deep down, even Tiger would admit that regular-season victories (four PGA tour titles this year) just aren't going to cut it.

"People want him to win majors," LaCava said. "Golf is definitely better when Tiger's winning majors than when he's not."

No, it isn't an easy point to counter.

"Of course, of course it's better," Player said. "But you also have to admire Tiger getting back to No. 1 after all the adversity he had and with everyone writing him off.

"Now, will he surpass Nicklaus in the majors? Golf is too difficult a game to predict, but if anybody can win another five majors, it's Tiger. Does that make sense?"

Perfect sense to those who want golf to feel like the greatest show on earth.

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