Mark O’Meara, for years a de facto big brother to Tiger Woods, sees 2014 as a line in the sand in the career of the world No. 1.
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If Woods is to lay claim to being the greatest of all time, he needs to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, and it’s been 5 1/2 years since he won his last — his 14th, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
It’s a task that isn’t going to get any easier.
“I’m surprised that he hasn’t broken through and won a major in the last three years, I really am,” O’Meara said Wednesday after playing in the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge pro-am.
“Every year that goes by is one less opportunity for Tiger.”
As Woods wraps up a season he again called “pretty good” with a final appearance at Sherwood Country Club outside of Los Angeles — next year the World Challenge follows the money and moves to Orlando — perhaps the most important year of his career awaits.
He will be 38 on Dec. 30.
Nicklaus won his 15th major — the 1978 British Open — at the age of … 38.
“He won five times this year, played OK in the majors for him, but I know he’s all about the majors,” said O’Meara. "I know his desire to win those events, and he didn’t do it.”
Woods needs five majors to scale Mount Nicklaus, but in order to do so, he’ll need to replicate Phil Mickelson’s majors career.
The odds probably aren’t with him, but if it is to happen, then he’ll need to take advantage of 2014 because the major venues have all been friendly hunting grounds for Woods.
He has won on three of them — Augusta National, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla — and could easily have won either of the U.S. Opens he played at Pinehurst No. 2.
“It’s not going to get any better for him,” said O’Meara.
“Going to Augusta, if he putts decent, there’s no reason why he won’t be in the mix on Sunday.
“Pinehurst he always plays well, Valahalla he won at, and [at] Hoylake we saw what he did last time the Open Championship was played there (in 2006).
“When you win on a course, you have good, fond memories of the place, and that counts for something, it really does. So, yes, I think next year’s a big year for him, for sure.”
O’Meara is hesitant to call it a make-or-break year for Woods because he thinks his friend has many good years left.
“If I can win two (majors) at 41, certainly he can win two at 46,” he said. “But having said that, the players are getting better. Every year that goes by, there’s more really good, quality players who can win. And that’s important. The fields aren’t just deeper, there’s more players out there who can win.”
O’Meara has watched Woods closely at the majors and concluded that what was once his greatest strength — holing the clutch putt — has become a weakness.
“The difference is he’s not making the putts,” he said.
“When you win a major championship, you usually had a good week on the greens, so for him to win, he’s got to putt well. He’s putted OK, but he hasn’t putted well enough to win, and I know he knows that.”
O’Meara thinks Woods has spent so much time retooling his swing that his feel on the greens has been affected, but adds that may be changing.
“This year, winning five events, getting a little bit back into the flow of things, being a little more sound with his swing, having more confidence in what he’s been doing with Sean (Foley), not so mechanically oriented, you can see he’s playing more now, not thinking so much about his swing,” O’Meara said.
“I think he’s going to be a different player at the majors next year.”
Woods also conceded on Wednesday that he fell flat at the majors in 2013.
Even with a controversial two-stroke penalty for an improper drop, he had his opportunities at the Masters but couldn’t close. He wasn’t a factor at the U.S. Open or at the PGA Championship but was in the mix at Muirfield until fading with a three-over par 74 closing round.
“I certainly wish I could have played a little better in major championships,” he said.
But he’s very aware that next year’s major venues represent opportunity.
“I’ve won at every one except for Pinehurst, and I’m trending in the right way. I’ve finished third (and) second. You get the picture, right?” he joked.
“So I’m looking forward to the major championship venues.
“They have set up well for me over the years.”
I asked O’Meara if he thought Woods would win a major in 2014.
“I think he could win two,” he said.
“Because he’s got a gift,” he said. “He’s got such a great gift.”