Commentary

Tiger talk to be major focused in '14

Updated: January 23, 2014, 8:36 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- The Torrey Pines billboard that features Tiger Woods and his accomplishments here is a reminder of what some seemingly take for granted when it comes to the game's No. 1 player.

This week at the Farmers Insurance Open, he's trying for a record-setting ninth victory on the same venue, seven of which have come in this tournament.

The eighth one is the epic 2008 U.S. Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate, the 14th major title that occurred at age 32 and -- despite pending knee surgery -- suggested it was more a matter of "when" than "if" he tied and eventually surpassed Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

Of course, Woods has not budged off that number since. He's going on six full years without a major title, and, at age 38, he even acknowledged he no longer has his prime years of golf ahead.

As his 2014 season commences at the place where he authored one of his greatest victories and also has had so much PGA Tour success, it is fair to wonder if the only thing that matters anymore is the major pursuit.

His start to the year on Thursday was hardly sterling on the South Course at Torrey Pines where he shot an even-par 72 and is tied for 63rd. The outcome here this week is unlikely to have much bearing on whether he is able to contend at the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship or PGA Championship.

And judging by the way his five-victory 2013 season was received, you'd almost have to say it's all about the majors anyway.

Yes, Woods was voted PGA Tour player of the year by his peers, but in so many instances, he has been judged by his own remarkable past, as if winning five times is not good enough.

In the past 20 years, only one other player has managed to win as many as five times in a single season on the PGA Tour -- Vijay Singh. Woods has done it 10 times and now has 79 PGA Tour victories, just three away from the record set by Sam Snead.

But that feat barely gets any run. It's all about the majors, all about his shortcomings in the game's biggest tournaments.

"His lack of winning a major is the only thing talked about," PGA Tour player Bill Haas said last year. "I think it's sad. I think it's ignorant."

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Stan Badz/US PGA TOURAs Tiger Woods aims for a record-setting ninth victory at Torrey Pines this week in the Farmers Insurance Open, questions about his major drought streak will likely persist at least until the Masters in April.

Haas has a FedEx Cup title to his name and five career PGA Tour victories -- the same number Woods won last year. Adam Scott, 33, who is ranked second in the world and hopes to threaten that No. 1 ranking, has won 10 times. No. 3 Henrik Stenson has won four, and No. 5 Justin Rose has five.

Phil Mickelson, who is ranked fourth and is five years older than Woods, has just more than half of Woods' total -- 42, and, frankly, it's tough to envision anyone getting close to Mickelson, or to Singh, who has 34 victories, for that matter. Perhaps Rory McIlroy, who has six wins and is just 24, will challenge, but he's got a long way to go.

It has been suggested many times that Woods would trade his five wins for the one captured by Rose -- the U.S. Open. And yet, if Woods won a major and nothing else, wouldn't he hear the criticism for that, too?

"It's understandable that people look at winning five times as easy to do because I've done it, whatever it is, nine, 10 times," Woods said. "I've played at a high level for a very long time, but it's not easy to do. We as players understand it, but I think if you're not out here competing all the time, you perceive it differently than I think we do.

"I think that's kind of what you're alluding to -- one of the reasons why I think the player of the year award is so coveted because it's respect from your fellow peers, and we as players totally understand that."

My question to Woods was more along the lines of: Does that bother you? He's never going to answer that he'd trade seasons with someone else, and he clearly was proud of winning the Players Championship and two World Golf Championship events among his five victories. If such a conversation annoys him, he's not letting on.

But you also get the sense that Woods believes the chase of Snead's record -- and having passed Nicklaus by six victories and counting -- has been underplayed.

"Sam won into his 50s," Woods said. "To be able to do it for virtually 30 years, that's unbelievable to have a playing career that long. For me to do it so far under 20 years is something I'm proud of."

To be clear, Woods long ago set up this narrative. He spoke openly from a young age about chasing Nicklaus' major record and made good on the promise by winning so many so early. Even with his recent drought, Woods is exactly on pace with Nicklaus in number of majors played as a pro (64) and victories (14) at age 38.

Nicklaus added his 15th at the 1978 Open Championship, which means if Woods captures one this year he remains on pace. And he's got favorable venues in his sights with Augusta, Pinehurst, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla all places at which he's had success.

Woods acknowledged that he's had to make concessions to age, citing Michael Jordan as an example of an athlete who changed his game as he got older.

"You're still able to be successful, but you do it a different way," Woods said. "You evolve as you age, and I think I've done that so far."

He is hardly conceding the major chase. Woods has spoken often about how he feels he can be competitive well into his 40s. He cites Tom Watson's run at the Open Championship at age 59 and players such as Ben Hogan, Mark O'Meara and Nicklaus, who won multiple majors in their 40s.

But this is clearly a big year. No matter how many regular tournaments he wins on the PGA Tour, he needs to change the storyline from his struggles in the majors to resuming the Golden Bear chase.

That might be unfair, but that is what Woods faces in 2014.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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