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Expect Tiger to pass Nicklaus' majors mark
by Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Let the buyer of this premise beware, but sport will indeed witness a record broken into a zillion shards of glass without a single cloud of steroid smoke drifting ominously above the feat.

Tiger Woods is going to beat Jack Nicklaus' standard of 18 major championships. It is a matter of when, not if, the case as clear as that forever chip-in hanging swoosh-first on an Augusta National lip.

Only pure genius can account for that absurd shot at the 16th hole Sunday, the day Woods matched Arnold Palmer's four Masters championships more than eighth months before his 30th birthday. A former Woods coach once described his student as half-Mozart, half-Magic Johnson. There's going to be sweet music played on Tiger's fast break past Nicklaus.

As a child, Tiger posted a chart above his bed listing his idol's accomplishments. He has devoted his adult life to attacking them one by one. When Woods won his eighth major title at the 2002 Bethpage Black Open, one more than Palmer seized his entire career, it looked like Nicklaus would become a flattened bug on Tiger's windshield.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 25 Grand Slam victories: Woods forgot how to close out the field, just as Mariano Rivera would forget how to close out the Red Sox. He went 0-for-10 in the majors, and suddenly Nicklaus was a fiercely proud legend talking with a renewed sense of hope.

"Tiger is showing that he's human, that he's not invincible," Nicklaus would tell me by phone in the middle of that 0-for-10. "It's like when Arnold came along in the late '50s; he took over, won some majors, and it was exactly what the game of golf needed. He became this invincible person. But then I came along and Gary (Player) and Tom (Watson) and (Lee) Trevino, and things changed.

"Tiger's going to win a lot more majors, but whether he'll win 17 or 30, I don't know. It depends on his health and a lot of other factors. What if someone comes along who's better than he is?"

That's not happening. Rewind to the 16th green on Sunday, all the evidence you need. So what if Woods bogeyed 17 and 18, breathing fresh life into Chris DiMarco's upset bid? He drained the putt he had to make in the one-and-done playoff, claiming his ninth major victory at age 29; Nicklaus didn't claim No. 9 until he turned 32.

"Have you thought about being halfway to Jack's record?" someone asked Woods Sunday while he was wearing his fourth green jacket.

"I haven't thought about it," Tiger said.

Yeah, right.

"I guess I am halfway," he added. "A long way to go."

Not nearly as long as it looked before that playoff putt disappeared like a field mouse diving into a hole.

In 1995, the Bear predicted that Tiger would ultimately win more Masters title than the 10 Nicklaus and Palmer combined to win. "Just wondering what he was smoking," Woods joked. Only nobody's laughing anymore.

"It would be pretty cool if I got... that would be six more," Tiger said. "That's a lot, isn't it?"

A ton. But Nicklaus himself said Woods would become a better player after he got married, after he found someone else to play for.

That was Tiger in the arms of his wife, Elin, after securing his first major triumph as a married man. It would be a triumph Woods would tearfully dedicate to his cancer-ridden father, Earl, the Vietnam vet and Green Beret who raised his son to conquer Nicklaus.

Earl, 73, had promised his son he would live to see his 84th birthday. That might be just enough time for Tiger to get to 19.

"Realistically," Nicklaus said, "he might very well be a better player than I was....Records are made to be broken, and it would be great if he breaks mine. I just want to be around to shake his hand if he does it."

Put it in the bank: Tiger's too good, too focused, too determined, to fail in this singular quest. He's going to scratch and claw his way past the Bear, the question a matter of when, not if.


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