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Sunday might never be the same

In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first major, the Masters. In 2008, he won his 14th at the U.S. Open. On Sunday at Merion, Woods finished at 13 over par, his worst performance ever at a major. Getty Images

ARDMORE, Pa. -- It's crazy, but let's say Tiger Woods never wins another major. Let's say he is done at age 37. Let's say he stops at 14, four short of Jack Nicklaus' record.

How will history judge him?

As a colossus, the likes of which golf has never seen? Or as a colossal disappointment? As a brilliant star? Or a star that burned out halfway across the sky? As a great champion? Or a great tragedy?

Do you realize that this Tiger tailspin is older than his younger child? It's true: Sam is just about to turn 6. Charlie is 4. And Skid is 5.

Sunday at the U.S. Open marked five years to the day since his last major triumph -- maybe his best -- the one-legged legend of Torrey Pines.

Five years. He has gone through the Mount Vesuvius of sex scandals, gotten divorced, moved his home, had more surgeries than Bruce Jenner, fired a caddie and began dating a skiing goddess since he last held a major trophy.

Now there's this little mumbling you hear in golf circles that (pssst) Tiger might have (keep it to yourself) lost a little of his (gulp) nerve. The scandal, the surgeries, the slow sucking of time might have turned him a little (cough-cough) scared.

How else do you explain a guy who wins all kinds of minors (13 during the streak) but no majors?

Before this year's Masters, he had won three tournaments of his past four, then he finished a quiet fourth in Augusta. Two starts before Merion, he won The Players, then pfffffft. In the 16 majors he has played in this five-year nuclear winter, he has won his last start before a major eight times. Yet never the major itself.

Even more telling, he's often been The Old Tiger in majors when the pressure was off (Thursday and Friday) and The New Tiger when the pressure was on. Did you ever think you'd hear that? His 76-74 weekend at Merion gave him his worst four-round Open ever. He hasn't had a weekend round in the 60s since the 2011 Masters. With all he has lived, he's 37 going on 57. Things fray.

So what about it? If he's done winning majors now, what should be his legacy?

Well, if Tiger Woods is really done, I think he would go down as the most gifted golfer in history and the golfer who wasted the most gifts.

To win 14 majors in only 13 years, then to never win another? That would be like swimming the English Channel and then drowning in the hotel pool.

If Tiger Woods is really done, he'd be remembered as a strong man who wrecked his career with his own weakness. He'd be thought of as an immortal and an immoral. After all, Ben Hogan might have been hit by an out-of-control bus. Tiger Woods was hit by an out-of-control Tiger. He'd be lumped with Mike Tyson, two men whose hunger for greatness was sunk by their hunger for lust.

If Tiger Woods is really done, he would be remembered among the three greatest who ever played: along with Nicklaus and Bobby Jones. All three of them owned not only golf but the entire American sports landscape for a time. All three won tournaments at a dizzying rate. Yet neither of the first two could touch Woods, who won four professional majors in a row, a feat unlikely to be topped.

If Tiger Woods is really done, his social impact would be world-changing. He'd be placed alongside Arnold Palmer, who brought golf to the truck drivers and the waitresses. Woods brought it to people of color.

If he really is done winning majors, Tiger Woods will go down as a god who walked among us. The figure he cut, the violence he swung with, the withering glare, the huge smile, the touch, the power, that all makes him the most magnetic player the game has ever seen. He is Kobe Bryant in long pants: awesome and feared and perhaps best viewed from a distance.

Even today, after all the unsavory reports about his private life, he remains the undefeated champion draw in golf. Do you realize that in the Merion media center, Tiger Woods had his own leaderboard? There was only one name on it: his. America might pull for Phil Mickelson, but it will never fail to watch Tiger Woods.

Lastly, and this is unfair but no less true, but if Tiger Woods never wins another major, he'll be remembered not for what was but what could have been.

When he was a young man, I can remember thinking, "This kid could win 30 majors!" My God, he had eight majors by the time he was 26. Even if the next 15 years of his career was going to be only half as good, he'd end up with 20, wouldn't he?

If Tiger Woods stopped winning majors now, it would make him a ghost walking among us, a living, breathing cautionary tale.

He'd be trapped in a cage of his own design, living every day being compared to the incomparable -- himself.