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Last Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005, 14:13 GMT 15:13 UK
Tiger: Tortoise or hare?

By Matt Slater
Golf editor

When Tiger Woods won at St Andrews last month, he did more than reach double figures for major victories, he also took the first step on the back nine towards Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

Having got bogged down at the ninth for nearly three years, the 29-year-old star has raced through the turn this year with a fourth win at the Masters and a second triumph at the Open.

He comes to Baltusrol this week eager to get into the Amen Corner of his Golden Bear hunt, and victory in New Jersey would give him 11 professional majors - the same number as Walter Hagen, currently Nicklaus' closest rival - before his 30th birthday.

Nicklaus did not win his 10th major - the 1972 Masters - until a couple of months after his 32nd birthday. Woods was barely 29 and a half when he hit 10 at St Andrews.

Tiger Woods
Masters: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005
US Open: 2000, 2002
Open: 2000, 2005
USPGA: 1999, 2000
So having seen a four-year "lead" over Nicklaus narrow during the barren years after the 2002 US Open, Woods is racing ahead again.

The younger man, in fact, has not trailed his hero's win rate since picking up his fourth major at the 2000 Open.

Having won his first big prize a year younger than Nicklaus won his - Tiger's victory at the 1997 Masters aged 21 versus Jack's win at the 1962 US Open aged 22 - Woods was beaten to wins two and three.

But when Woods tapped in for an eight-shot triumph at St Andrews he regained his advantage over Nicklaus and reached the halfway point of a "Tiger Slam" that would redefine golfing achievement.

Two majors later at Augusta, the then-25-year-old held all four major titles at the same time.

He "failed" to win the next three but returned to winning ways with victories in the first two majors of 2002. Woods, at that stage, had won six of nine majors since the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.

His remarkable 15-shot victory there instigated an unprecedented period of golfing domination that was not broken until his Grand Slam bid got tangled in Muirfield's rain-soaked rough in 2002.

That experience seemed to usher in a new, more mortal, Woods. The prodigious power was still there, but his sights seemed off.

Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus at the 2003 Presidents Cup
Tiger and Jack: Golfing greats at the 2003 Presidents Cup
He then suffered his first real injury, met the girl he was going to marry and went through a public break-up with his long-time coach.

Were events, dear boy, events, making a mess of Team Woods' carefully-constructed plans?

Prior to 2003, Woods looked indestructible - Nicklaus' record was as good as gone. But after a ragged 2004, many were wondering if Woods would win another.

Tiger's results in the 2005 majors - first, second, first - have put paid to that, and perhaps the only thing that can really slow his progress is parenthood.

While Nicklaus "only" had seven majors by his 30th birthday, he also had four kids.

Woods has made a nonsense of predictions that his marriage to Swedish model Elin Nordegren last October would have a negative impact on his game - his results are a glowing recommendation for conjugal union - but will the arrival of Tiger cubs be so easily accommodated?

Nicklaus, himself, endured a three-year major drought after winning the 1967 US Open aged 27 - 1969 being remarkably similar to Woods' 2004 in terms of results.

Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters
Nicklaus was still rolling them in for major wins at the age of 46
But the arrival of his fourth decade heralded a five-year spell that brought seven more majors. All that despite the emergence of a new wave of rivals that included fellow greats Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

Will Woods show the same work ethic, competitive fire and powers of concentration as off-course complications make increasing demands on his time?

The early signs are that Woods, the consummate competitor, can handle anything that life can throw at him.

Whether "the phenomenon" will still be winning majors in his 40s - as Nicklaus did three times - is impossible to guess, but what is less unclear is whether he will need to in order to pass the 18-major mark.

Ten have come in eight years, his chief rivals are in retreat and he is only now reaching what have traditionally been a golfer's most productive years.

It was fitting that Nicklaus' final bow as a competitor in a major should come in the same tournament Woods became only the second man, after Jack, to win each major twice.

The passing of the baton from one sporting great to another has rarely been so seamless.

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