Woods on cusp of passing Palmer's mark

He is not losing any sleep over this. Arnold Palmer, at 78, still has too much going on in his life to fret over golf achievements that are about to be toppled. Whether it is course design work or endorsements or planning for his March golf tournament or even his frequent money matches at Bay Hill, there is plenty to keep him from looking over his shoulder.

And, of course, he long ago recognized and acknowledged the greatness that is Tiger Woods.

Palmer saw it firsthand during that practice round long ago at Augusta National, when Jack Nicklaus declared that Woods might win as many Masters as the Golden Bear and Palmer combined. (That would be 10.) And he saw it when Tiger was winning Palmer's own tournament at Bay Hill four straight times.

So the fact that Woods is closing in on Palmer's total number of victories accomplished in a Hall of Fame career was, well, inevitable, right?

"No question, he is very capable and it was never a surprise," Palmer said in a recent interview from his Bay Hill office in Orlando, Fla. "I never really even thought about it until the media began making an issue of the fact that he was catching my 62 PGA Tour victories.

"Heck, he may double that. I would not be surprised at all."

Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week to play his first event of the 2008 season at the Buick Invitational, a tournament he has won three straight times and five overall.

When he last competed in an official PGA Tour event, Woods was wrapping up the 2007 season by capturing the Tour Championship and the inaugural FedEx Cup in Atlanta. That victory was his second straight and the fourth in his past five tournaments.

It was also the 61st victory of his PGA Tour career, bringing him within one of Palmer, setting up the possibility of tying him this week.

"I didn't see winning this many times in my 20s and now in my 30s," said Woods, who turned 32 on Dec. 30. "I never would have foreseen that."

Palmer won his 62nd and last PGA Tour event in 1973 at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He was in his 18th year on the PGA Tour, and it was his 473rd tournament.

Woods needed 230 tournaments in a little more than 11 seasons to make it to No. 61.

Palmer got started later than Woods, however. Tiger was just 20 years old when he turned pro and joined the PGA Tour in 1996. He had won 24 times, including five major championships, before his 25th birthday.

And that is the age when Palmer first joined the PGA Tour. After playing college golf at Wake Forest, he entered the military. Then there was an apprenticeship to serve before he could get paid for playing.

No regrets, Arnie said.

"I feel very fortunate to be able to do what I was able to do," Palmer said. "I was in school for four years. I was in the military for three years. If any have any comment about that, it gave me a chance to mature and be able to do what I did. I'm very grateful for all the things that happened, and to be able to go on tour and do what I did."

This year is the 50th anniversary of Palmer's first Masters victory in 1958, the first of his seven major championship wins.

For the time being, he remains fourth on the all-time PGA Tour victory list behind Sam Snead (82), Jack Nicklaus (73) and Ben Hogan (64). Palmer said there was not as much emphasis on the victory total as he was climbing the list. Nicklaus did not surpass Palmer until 1977.

"There was always some fanfare," Palmer said. "I think the biggest deal was when I won $100,000 in one year. And when I made it to $1 million [for his career]. I was the first to do so. That was a big deal. And I suppose the fact that I won eight tournaments a couple of years, that sort of thing. Those things that I mentioned, they made an issue of. The total number was less of an issue, I suppose."

Palmer and Nicklaus became the first players to surpass $100,000 for a season in 1963, with Palmer winning the last of his four money titles. He became the first player to surpass $1 million in a career in 1968. And he twice won eight times in a season (1960 and 1962).

Of course, comparing money earnings with Tiger or anyone in today's era is futile, especially when you consider there were 41 players who surpassed Palmer's career PGA Tour total ($1.86 million) last year alone.

But closing in on Arnie's victory total is something to talk about.

"To even be mentioned in the same breath as Arnold Palmer, you know you've done something special," Woods said.

If it doesn't happen this week, it could happen at the Match Play Championship next month.

Then, it would only be fitting if Woods surpassed Palmer at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

"Nothing would surprise me," Palmer said. "And it could get better. It all depends on his ambition, his desire, if he wants to keep continuing to do these things. His accomplishments could be even better."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.