- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- With a menacing state trooper hovering on each side of him, Tiger Woods leaned against a patio rail and reached down to the fans desperate to make a fleeting connection with fortune and fame.
"Back up, back up," one trooper barked at the Bethpage Black masses lunging toward Woods with their posters and caps. Tiger granted more than his fair share of autographs, not something he was known for back in the day. Then he hopped in a cart and blew past his caddie, Joe LaCava, who was heading for the players' parking lot and declaring along the way that 2012 has been very, very good to his man.
"Tiger's priority is to win majors," LaCava said, "but tour wins mean a lot to him, too. So you can't say it wasn't a good year when you win three times."
Before the caddie popped the trunk of Tiger's courtesy car, a white BMW with New Jersey plates, he spoke of the historic component of those three tour victories -- Woods lifted his career total to 74, or one north of Jack Nicklaus' sum.
"And that definitely meant something to him," LaCava said. "He's not going to come out here and say it because Jack's his hero, so it would be kind of rubbing it in Jack's face. But that's the guy Tiger idolized, and he passed him."
So 2012 should be a season in the sun for Woods. Three wins, six top-10, contention in multiple majors, a place atop the FedEx Cup standings, a strong case for Player of the Year, and a 74th victory claimed at age 36, or 10 years younger than Nicklaus was when he claimed No. 73. Oh, and Tiger matched Jack's 73 at Jack's place with one of the damnedest shots Jack's ever seen.
But it's still been a bad year for Tiger Woods. A lousy year. A year Tiger likely wants to end as quickly as possible.
Just like the scene on the clubhouse patio, this is his burden of greatness. Tiger Woods is the New York Yankees of golf, and Tiger's old buddy, Derek Jeter, says it all the time: It's not a good year unless the Yankees win it all.
Woods' sport allows him four chances to win it all, and he came up empty for a fourth straight season (injury cost him two major starts last year) and a third straight since his life went up in smoke. Tiger doesn't get a mulligan here at the Barclays, the first leg of a convoluted playoff system that rewards its last man standing with $10 million bucks.
Even after the high-priced divorce settlement, Woods would surely trade the $10 million for a 15th major victory and a cleaner shot at Nicklaus' mark of 18, the one record Tiger has tracked since posting it on his childhood walls.
Will Tiger hunt down the Golden Bear? On the subject of Woods and Nicklaus and Grand Slam history, these are my articles of faith:
I believe Woods will break Nicklaus' record, and I believed that even in the worst hour of his sex scandal.
I believe Woods only needs to win 18 majors, not 19, to go down as the greatest player of all time, with total tour victories as the tiebreaker.
I believe Woods, like Nicklaus, sees any season without a major title as a lost season, even if neither titan would say so publicly.
"I see it as absolutely it's a good year," Woods said Wednesday of his 2012 campaign. "But I think winning a major championship puts it into a great year category. … Ernie Els had a pretty good year this year, but all of a sudden now he wins a major championship and it's a great year.
"I think that's the difference between the majors and the other events. They're just that much bigger."
And that's the whole point. Tiger Woods is golf's biggest figure because he's spent most of his career as a robot in a red shirt terminating the field at the biggest events -- the majors.
Wiping out Rory McIlroy in their marquee morning pairing at The Barclays on Thursday won't qualify as a worthy substitute, not that McIlroy plans on losing to Tiger here or at next month's Ryder Cup at Medinah.
"I'd love Tiger to go out first," the recent PGA Championship winner said of the Ryder Cup, "and kick his ass."
McIlroy was successfully going for a laugh in his news conference while Woods waited patiently in the rear of the tent. Tiger and Rory slapped hands in the tent, took turns saying how much they enjoy each other's company, and even had a pleasant chat on the driving range away from the news media's glare.
"Tiger wished Rory well and just told him, 'Great playing. Keep it going,'" LaCava said. "It was a nice exchange. Tiger's not one of these guys who sits there and says, 'Oh geez, Rory won again.' That doesn't hack him off. Tiger welcomes the competition and he likes to see young kids who are good kids like Rory doing well. He knows Rory's a great player who's going to be a fantastic player."
But fantastic enough to kick Tiger's rump?
"At Medinah?" Woods said through a thin smile. "No."
Woods didn't elaborate. Joke or no joke, he usually answers opponents from tee to green.
Tiger would speak of his admiration for Nicklaus' longevity, for Jack's ability to battle Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Billy Casper and, years later, to still have enough game left to take on the likes of Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller.
"He crossed generations," Woods said of Nicklaus, "and when you're a part of that conversation for the better part of 25 years, that's saying something. I was kind of hoping when I started off my career, I'd be part of the conversation for that length of time."
McIlroy represents a new generation and a new challenge to the 2002 U.S. Open winner at Bethpage Black. Woods was 26 when he seized his eighth major, and back then it felt like he'd blow past Nicklaus' 18 with the greatest of ease.
Ten years later, it's hard to find anyone at Bethpage who feels the same way.
"I'm only one year in with him," LaCava said, "but of course I look at his track record and think, 'How can you not be confident that he's going to break it?' Tiger should fire me if I wasn't confident that he would break it, right? Of course I believe he's going to get to 19, and if he gets to 19 he can certainly get into the twenties."
LaCava left Dustin Johnson to be there when Woods realizes his lifelong ambition, and 2012 didn't help Tiger get closer to the house. For any other golfer on the planet, the tour wins, the money, the major contention, and the FedEx Cup points would make this a season to cherish.
For Tiger Woods, hunter of the Golden Bear, it's been a waste of his time. No, it isn't fair. But when has golf ever been fair?
23hZach Jones, ESPN Stats & Information