Tiger’s 15th major to come sooner than later

Despite the rules controversy and calls for him to withdraw, and even with the club tossing and liberal dropping of F-bombs every time a camera panned his way, Tiger Woods could have won the Masters.

In fact, he was probably one bad break and one brain lock away from walking away with his fifth green jacket.

Think about it: Tiger finished tied for fourth, four shots behind Adam Scott. Had his ball not hit the flag and bounded back into the water on the 15th hole on Friday — a shot that could have just as easily flown in the hole for eagle — he likely would have saved two shots and taken the lead into the weekend.

Two minutes later, Tiger made the controversial bad drop, stepping two yards behind his original position to insure that he didn’t hit the flag again. That resulted in a two-shot penalty that wasn’t assessed until Saturday morning. A whirlwind of controversy ensued, as amateur rules aficionados wondered how he could sign an incorrect scorecard and still be in the field.

Still, he was just a few early Sunday putts away from pulling it off.

Tiger has become one of the most polarizing figures in the game with almost no one taking a neutral stance. You either love him or hate him — either pull for him or pull for him to fail.

But emotions aside, the guy is the best player in a generation and arguably the best golfer who ever lived, despite remaining four major titles behind Jack Nicklaus’ record. Unless he ruptures another knee or wrecks another car, Tiger (77 victories) will better Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82 wins and probably become the all-time leading winner on both the US and European Tours — since the majors and World Golf Championships events count for both.

As staggering as those statistics are, careers are defined by majors, a point Tiger has made repeatedly. At the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry, one of the European reporters asked him how he rated the Ryder Cup in relation to the majors. After looking at the guy like he was a barking dog, Tiger said, “How many people in here know Jack Nicklaus’ Ryder Cup record?”

It’s 17-8-3, but at the time, nobody had those numbers on the tip of their tongue. Everyone with a passing knowledge of the game knows Jack won 18 major championships.

At 14 majors and holding, Tiger has to feel as though the clock is ticking on history. If he remains competitive until he is 45 — a big if given the toll his swing has taken on his body — that gives him 35 more major starts. He needs four to tie, five to hold the record on his own.

Phil Mickelson, arguably the second best player of his generation behind Tiger, has been playing the tour for 21 years. He only has four major wins.

It’s too early to say it’s now or never for Tiger, but that time is not far off. Merion and the U.S. Open present his best chance this year. He continues to struggle to find fairways with the driver, but because of the relatively short length of the course and the importance of finding the fairways, driver will be the least important club in the bag that week.

Muirfield, site of the Open Championship, also suits his game. He can hit stinger 2-irons and hold-off 3-woods and remain in the hunt.

Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., site of the PGA Championship, is a little different in that it favors precise iron play.

Anyone hacking it out of the rough, as Tiger has been prone to do of late, will struggle.

If he continues to play the way he has, Tiger will be the favorite in every major, just as he was at the Masters. And if he continues to put himself in contention, that 15th title is bound to come sooner or later.