Tiger won't be denied major No. 19

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods fell into the arms of Billy Casper and engaged him in the kind of extended, full-throttle, pats-on-the-back hug Woods once reserved for his father. This scene was more than a bit startling Tuesday, if only because Tiger usually avoids public displays of affection like he avoids the sand.

Unless he's winning major championships. And Tiger hasn't won one of those in four long and lonely years.

Perhaps Woods' embrace of Casper on the way into his U.S. Open news conference wouldn't have been half as warm had he known what the 1966 champion at Olympic had told ESPN.com a half-hour earlier.

"My belief is that Tiger threw away 2½ years of productive golf," Casper said, "that he would've won more major championships in those 2½ years, and that I don't think he will catch up to Jack Nicklaus. I just don't think he'll make it."

To 19, Casper meant. Nicklaus owns golf's magic number, 18, a number Tiger used as his personal dart board as a kid with faraway dreams. Casper is a Hall of Famer, the winner of 51 PGA Tour events, the author of "The Big Three and Me" and a prominent voice in the ever-growing chorus now convinced a Tiger scarred by surgery and scandal won't be strong enough to track down the Bear.

He's wrong. They're all wrong. Nicklaus claimed his 15th Grand Slam victory at St. Andrews in 1978, the third major contested after his 38th birthday, meaning the 36-year-old Woods -- born on Dec. 31 -- merely has to win one of his next nine starts to remain ahead of Jack's pace.

Only this isn't a matter decided by the calendar. Woods is a Jordan, an Ali, one of the signature athletes of his time, or any time. In the end, winners like these don't get denied. For all of his self-inflicted wounds, for all of the damage he did to what had been a forbidding game-day aura, Woods retains the talent and drive to hit the one target he's been aiming at since he was, you know, old enough to aim.

Time is actually on Tiger's side, as his sport allows its competitors to age with grace. Woods keeps himself in better shape than Nicklaus ever did, and hey, golf doesn't require anyone to maintain a 40-inch vertical leap, to run a 4.4 40-yard dash, or to pick up Ray Lewis on an all-out blitz.

"Jack did it at 46, right?" Woods said of Nicklaus' final major title in 1986, at Augusta National. "So I've got 10 [years]. [Tom] Watson almost pulled it off [at the 2009 British Open] at 59. It can be done. We can play for a very long time. And that's the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit, is that the playing [careers] have extended.

"Look how many guys are 50-plus still playing out here. ... Guys are extending their careers and playing for a lot longer than they used to. Most of the guys used to shut it down in their early 40s."

Before Woods was exposed as a serial adulterer, costing him his marriage and his standing with corporate backers and fans, people saw his conquest of Nicklaus as a mortal lock. Andy North, two-time Open winner and ESPN analyst, predicted Woods would win 25 majors. Even Casper, today's prophet of doom, was yesterday's big believer that Tiger would pull it off.

"I really felt he would do it," Casper said. "I felt Tiger was the finest player we ever had, and that he would pass Nicklaus. But then he lost some of the most productive years you have in your career."

Woods lost plenty more than that.

"I tried to say to Tiger, 'I want to talk to you, let me visit with you,'" Casper said. "This was a number of years ago, I was a big fan of his, and he had a lot of educational programs for young people and he needed to maintain an example for them. And it was sickening when all of this came out, for me and for him."

While he was still recovering from his public meltdown, still figuring out his new and not-so-improved place in the game in the summer of 2010, I stopped Woods outside of Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey and asked him if he still felt he would achieve his most meaningful professional goal.

"Absolutely," he said. "I look at it this way: [Ben] Hogan won all nine of his [majors] at my age or older."

Of course, there are other stories that cut against Hogan's grain. Watson won his last major at 33. Arnold Palmer won his last major at 34.

Only Woods is a much better player than either man; he's one Sunday away from matching their combined total of majors. There's a reason Nicklaus once predicted a young Tiger would someday surpass the 10 combined Masters titles seized by the Bear and the King.

No, that one isn't happening. But Woods' absurd flop shot at the Memorial, the damnedest shot Nicklaus has ever seen, hardened Tiger's belief that he has enough magic left in his hands to win five more Grand Slam events -- or Byron Nelson's entire collection -- over the next 15 to 20 years.

Woods matched Nicklaus' 73 tour victories that day and was quick to point out that he did it at 36, an unsubtle reminder that ol' Jack needed 10 extra years to get there. Not that it mattered. The great ones don't chase regular-season victories; that's not how they keep score.

So Woods was asked in his Tuesday news conference if he needed to win another big one, maybe here at Olympic, to silence the debate over whether he is all the way back. "I think even if I do win a major championship," he said, "it will still be, 'You're not to 18 yet.' Or, 'When will you get to 19?' It's always something with you guys."

Over the years Woods was supposed to be derailed by his engagement, his marriage, his fatherhood, and so many injuries to his left leg. The red shirt conquered all.

This is by far his most pressing challenge, this comeback from pariah-dom. Woods needs some good luck with his health -- he's due for some -- and he needs a little help from the kind of nuclear equipment Nicklaus didn't have in his bag.

But even if Woods has to crawl his way to No. 19 as a 57-year-old long shot on one functional leg, he'll do it. And those of us lucky enough to be there, those of us who rightfully ripped him for conduct unbecoming, can talk and write about the storms weathered by the greatest golfer of them all.