Tiger is hot on the trail of Hogan, Nicklaus

Since the start of the 2006 season, Tiger Woods has taken aim at some of the greatest names the sport of golf has to offer and blown right past them on the all-time PGA Tour victory list.

Fifty victories for a career was a feat that had not been accomplished since the early 1970s, when Billy Casper became just the sixth player to reach that hallowed mark.

Woods caught Casper, who finished with 51 titles, when he won the 2006 PGA Championship.

Then he caught Byron Nelson, who finished with 52 titles, when he won the Bridgestone Invitational the following week.

Next on the list was Arnold Palmer, who finished with 62 titles. Woods tied Palmer at the Buick Invitational in January.

And now with his victory Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has drawn equal with the legendary Ben Hogan, who won 64 times.

While pondering whether Tiger can catch Jack Nicklaus this year (73 victories), the W18 first takes a look at Hogan, one of the game's most revered figures.

1. Bantam Ben

Hogan was renowned for his ball-striking ability, his relentless practice and his "five fundamentals.'' Before Woods came along, he was the only professional to capture three major titles in the same season, winning the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in 1953. The '53 British at Carnoustie was his one and only appearance in the tournament, and turned out to be the last of his nine major titles. Hogan would win just one more time, the 1959 Colonial, his 64th title.

But many will always wonder what could have been for Hogan. In 1949, he and his wife, Valerie, were involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him in the hospital for two months and made walking painful. Hogan had 53 victories to that point in his career, at age 37. The accident kept him off the tour for nearly a year.

Amazingly, Hogan returned to win the 1950 U.S. Open. And six of his nine major titles came after the accident, but he won just 11 more titles overall.

2. Eyeing Jack

Next on the list for Tiger is Jack Nicklaus, whose 73rd and final PGA Tour title came when he won the 1986 Masters, his 18th major title.

While much of the focus during Woods' career has been on his pursuit of Nicklaus' majors record (Tiger has 13 majors), he is now in position to match Nicklaus' PGA Tour total. And maybe this year.

Yep, it sounds crazy, but it is also incredible to think that Woods has won 18 times on tour since the start of the 2006 season.

A look at Woods' probable schedule shows that the nine victories he needs to match Nicklaus could be accomplished in 2008: Doral (he's won three in a row), the Masters (he's won four times), Wachovia (defending champion), Players Championship (won in 2001), Memorial (won three times), U.S. Open (won four straight Buicks at Torrey Pines), AT&T National (it's his tournament), British Open (tied for third, a shot back, at Royal Birkdale in '98), Bridgestone Invitational (has won it three straight years). That would tie him with Nicklaus.

OK, let's throw out the Players -- where he doesn't have a top 10 since winning in '01 -- and the AT&T -- where perhaps the duties of tournament host become too much.

So add in the Deutsche Bank Championship, where he finished second last year (the last time he didn't win, by the way) and won in 2006, and the Tour Championship, where he is also defending champion.

Then we can start talking about when he'll catch Sam Snead and 82 victories.

3. Heading to Doral

Many in the field at Bay Hill are headed down the Florida Turnpike to the CA Championship at Doral in Miami. For the second year, the tournament is no longer a full-field PGA Tour stop but a World Golf Championship event, meaning a field of about 70 players and no 36-hole cut. The tournament has attracted 49 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, with only British Open champion Padraig Harrington skipping. Harrington played the Ballantine's Championship in Korea, where he tied for 14th.

Woods has won the tournament three straight years -- but that requires some explaining. The CA Championship used to be known as the American Express Championship, and it moved around the world. He won it in 2005 in San Francisco and again in 2006 in England. Last year, it moved to Doral, where it is anchored. But Woods had also won the previous two Doral tour stops in 2005 and 2006. Either way, Woods has this tournament covered.

4. Perfect season?
It sounds crazy, but Woods has now won all three of his PGA Tour starts this year and four tournaments overall. Can he run the table? Well, if he wins at Doral, he can compare notes with Don Shula, the coach of the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins, who is the honorary chairman for the tournament. Shula will hand over the winner's trophy.

5. Daly's future

It was not a good week for John Daly, who after spending time in a hospitality venue at the PODS Championship was dumped by his swing coach, Butch Harmon, and then missed his pro-am time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, making him ineligible for the event.

Although the incidents were not related, they again focused more negative attention on Daly, who has played poorly for two years and has had to rely on sponsors' exemptions to get into tournaments.

Fred Couples, a friend of Daly's who played with him in the Merrill Lynch Shootout last fall, said it's up to Daly. "He can read all this stuff and say the heck with it. Or he can read it all and say they're right,'' Couples said.

One telling comment from Couples in regard to Daly's use of Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Jon Gruden during the first round of the PODS Championship: "I like people, too. But I'm not going to have a guy who has never carried my clubs caddie for me in a PGA Tour event.''

6. But give him some credit

Daly felt bad about missing the Bay Hill pro-am, and he tried to do something about it. On Saturday, he contacted tournament host Arnold Palmer and wondered if he could invite the three UBS employees who were scheduled to play with him on Wednesday to play a round of golf Sunday morning at nearby Celebration Golf Club. According to tournament director Scott Wellington, the pro-am participants were no longer at Bay Hill. So Daly asked if he could entertain anybody else, and sure enough, three more-than-willing other employees were found.

7. Pro-am rules

The idea of getting bounced from the tournament for not participating in a pro-am might seem a little harsh. But most players understand the importance of the Wednesday outings. They are more than a schmoozefest or a practice round. Most pro-ams are the financial backbone of a regular PGA Tour event. Not only was Daly determined ineligible for the tournament, but so were Ryuji Imada and Nick O'Hern -- alternates for the pro-am who were not on site.

"I think the rule is a good one,'' said Masters champion Zach Johnson. "The most important reason, from a tournament standpoint is [the pro-am] is the most important day by far. We would not be playing week-to-week, day-to-day, year-to-year if not for our sponsors, and this is the way we come and thank them. … I don't think the rule is … it's harsh, but I don't think it's unfair.''

8. Kresge takes advantage

When Ernie Els withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational, there was some irony when Cliff Kresge took his place in the field. Kresge was one of the first to approach Els and reach out after learning that Els' son, Ben, has autism. Kresge's 7-year-old son, Mason, is also autistic. Kresge, 39, who has never won on the PGA Tour, took advantage of the spot, shot a final-round 67 and tied for third to earn $301,600 -- his largest career paycheck.

9. Knowing when it's time

Even at age 78, Arnold Palmer is frequently on the golf course, playing in the daily shootout at Bay Hill, trying to find the magic. This year, Palmer celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first Masters victory and will see Gary Player break his record of 50 Masters appearances. The will to win never waned for Palmer, who admitted that golfers -- especially himself -- have a hard time determining when their time is up. That realization came for Palmer in 1994 at the U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he missed the cut at age 64.

"That was sort of my swan song, to know that I wasn't going to be a factor ever again," he said. "Sometimes you just keep in your mind and you put that off; you don't want to recognize the fact that you're through.

"Brett Favre did it. Maybe he did it to protect his own best interests in life by coming out a hero and finishing that way. Some golfers did it. [Byron] Nelson did it. Others sort of drug it on, and I did. But I didn't mind it. I enjoyed it. But at Oakmont it became a knowledge that I wasn't going to be a competitor that was going to win anymore in that vein.''

10. Arnie's autograph

Palmer did not hold back when asked what influence he hoped to have over young players. One of his pet peeves is related to the simple act of signing an autograph for fans.

"I don't know where a player comes off, a young player particularly, that is being asked to give an autograph and scribbles something down there that you can't read,'' Palmer said. "Well, who in the hell knows what it is? Why take the time to do it? Why not make it legible? Jack Nicklaus, you never have a question about Jack's autograph. Or Gary Player's autograph. … If you're going to give an autograph, make it legible so that people know what the hell they have in their hand.''

11. Honoring Arnie

A day after winning the PODS Championship for his second PGA Tour title, Sean O'Hair honored a commitment to play in a Monday pro-am at Bay Hill. Although he was drained from his victory, O'Hair was rewarded, asking for and receiving a photo op with the King himself.

"When I talked to him, I couldn't tell you one thing he said. I can't,'' O'Hair said, laughing. "I couldn't tell you one thing he said. But I just was in such awe of just his presence. And you look into his eyes and it's just like, I don't know … he's still got it in his eyes. You just think of what he's experienced and how cool it would be to experience the things that he's done, and some of the things that he has achieved, it's amazing. So I just kind of wanted a picture so I could show my grandkids one day.''

O'Hair, 25, was born 10 years after Palmer won his last PGA Tour title.

12. Arnie of all trades

Palmer is a golfer, a course architect, a pitchman, a pilot, an entrepreneur. He also had to become somewhat of an agronomy expert in the months leading up to his tournament when a crisis enveloped the greens.

"I've been in the golf business all my life and I've treated a lot of situations, and this was probably one that worried me as much as any,'' Palmer said. "The PGA Tour sent all their experts here. We had Ph.D.s from all over the Southeast and even going national and seeking some help or information on who to treat the nematode situation, which was basically the problem.

"I found out things that I didn't know about grasses and golf and the horticulture of the greens. There are 40 different species of nematodes, and I looked at microscopic shots of them crawling up the roots of the grasses and the whole thing. We did some turf transferring into the greens. We did just about everything that the Ph.D.s of the world would tell us to do to conquer the problem.''

13. Byron Nelson Championship concerns

The PGA Tour announced on Friday that all is well with the venue for the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, to be played in late April. But just a few days earlier, there had been some serious worrying at tour headquarters about whether or not the refurbished TPC Las Colinas -- now renamed the TPC Four Seasons -- would be ready in time for the tournament.

The course endured harsh criticism last year due to bumpy, brown greens. When the tournament ended, Champions Tour player D.A. Weibring started a refurbishing project that involved a remaking of every hole. That's tough to do in 12 months, especially with significant rainfall in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. As late as Wednesday, commissioner Tim Finchem admitted he was still concerned.

"We're at a point with Las Colinas where we're building staging down there, so we've got to make a call,'' Finchem said. "The visit that was done Monday was very positive. There's no question about the quality of the golf course. But we've got to have good grass, and the greens need to come through.''

Apparently the tour is satisfied all will be OK, even if some players remain skeptical.

"They shouldn't have a PGA Tour event at that golf course if they're not going to do what it takes to have PGA Tour-quality greens,'' said tour player Jerry Kelly. "I feel we need to be updated on the situation truthfully so we can make decisions on our schedules accordingly.''

14. We meet again

When Tiger Woods and Mark Wilson were paired together for the first two rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was the first time they'd played together since Woods was a teenager.

That occurred in 1992, when Woods defeated Wilson 1-up in the finals of the U.S. Junior Amateur in Milton, Mass. It was the second of three U.S. Junior titles in succession for Woods, who was 2-down with five holes to play.

"I was excited to see it,'' Wilson said of the pairing with Woods. "It probably happened at the right time. A year or two ago, I might have been overwhelmed. Now I just play golf and don't worry about what the other guy was doing.

"We obviously didn't take the same path. But we both made it to the PGA Tour, which is what really matters.''

15. In search of rankings points

Colin Montgomerie traveled halfway around the world, hoping to better position himself for a spot in the Masters. It was a noble effort, as the Scot turned down an appearance fee at the Ballantine's Championship, a European Tour event in Korea. Although the event had heavily promoted Monty's appearance, he accepted a last-minute invite to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational -- where he missed the cut. Montgomerie, who needs to be in the top 50 in the world ranking to get into the Masters, will likely need to win this week's CA Championship at Doral in order to make the field.

16. Caddie stories

The player-caddie relationship can be short-lived and ever changing. Needless to say, there is a good amount of turnover in the profession. But Tony Carolan, who plays the Asian Tour and was competing at the Ballantine's Championship in South Korea, took it to a new level. He fired his caddie last week. During the round.

"After I went par, birdie, birdie, birdie, I sacked him,'' Carolan, an Australian, told reporters. "He was just terrible. I can't remember his name and I don't think he wants to remember mine because I was yelling at him for four holes, telling him to move, stop moving when the others were playing.

"He dropped the umbrella on the first hole and then I found out he had spikes on so I had to kick him off the greens. So I had to ask for another caddie, it was just too much.''

17. Major disappointment

Bart Bryant, 45, is not in the Masters field and dearly wants another crack at Augusta National after missing the cut the past two years. That's why Sunday's Arnold Palmer Invitational meant so much to him. A victory would have given him an invite, but finishing second was not enough for him to crack the top 50 in the Official World Ranking.

Tiger Woods took care of all that when he birdied the final hole to win by a stroke.

"It would have got me into Augusta,'' Bryant said. "It would have got me into next week [Doral]. It would have done a lot for me. That's what was so disappointing is I had a lot on the line and couldn't take advantage.''

Bryant has played in just 11 major championships, missing the cut in seven of them. Woods has won 13 majors.

18. Quotable

"It's just incredible. Just what he did today is another evidence of this weird zone he's in, and he's been in it like his whole life."
-- Bart Bryant, after Tiger Woods birdied the 18th hole to beat him by one stroke at the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.