Eight years is a long time, especially in Tiger years.
When Tiger Woods won The Open Championship in 2006, the last time it was at Hoylake, Barack Obama was just 18 months into his career as a senator. Derek Jeter was hitting behind Johnny Damon. And Woods was the No. 1 player in the world.
It has been six years since Woods, now seventh in the world, has won a major of any kind, and with every major that passes without him winning the window to catch Jack Nicklaus gets that much smaller, the challenge that much tougher.
There are any number of reasons for this, including a back injury that sidelined Woods for more than three months this year and caused him to miss the Masters and the year’s first two majors for the first time since he turned pro.
Of course it was Woods himself who set the bar so impossibly high -- and then cleared it.
From 1997 through 2008, Woods missed the cut in just one major (2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot), didn’t play in two others because of injury and won 14 of them, including one on a broken leg at Torrey Pines.
But in the 22 majors since he has missed the cut twice (2009 Open Championship at Turnberry and 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club) and didn’t play in four others because he was hurt (2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s; this year’s Masters and the U.S. Open at Pinehurst).
Much has also happened in Woods’ life -- on and off the golf course -- since his last lap around Hoylake, when he famously used driver just once and hit into its numerous bunkers even less.
Not that any of this matters to Woods. His expectations never change.
Asked what, given the limited preparation of just two competitive rounds and a missed cut in his only start since returning from back surgery last month, an acceptable finish would be this week, he said, simply, “First.”
“That’s always the case,” he added.
But even Woods can’t help but acknowledge just how difficult this pursuit is becoming.
Last year at the PGA Championship, he admitted that his 15th career major appears to be the most difficult of them all to win.
“It kind of seems that way,” he said at the time. “It’s the longest spell that I’ve had having not won a major. I’ve had my share of chances to win. I’ve had my opportunities there on the back nine on probably half of those Sundays for the last five years where I’ve had a chance and just haven’t won it. But the key is to keep giving myself chances and eventually I’ll start getting them.”
With every passing year, however, even the chances become tougher to create.
Since the start of 2009, there have been 18 different major champions with only four multiple major winners among that group.
“It gets harder every year, just because the field gets deeper,” Woods said this week. “The margin is so much smaller. It’s only going to continue to be the case. Guys are going to get longer, they’re going to get faster. Guys who are coming out here are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic.”
That’s an understatement.
In Woods’ first season on TOUR, he averaged 294.8 yards off the tee, second to only John Daly. In 2006, Woods was up to 306.4 yards and still ranked second, to Bubba Watson.
Last season, though, Woods averaged 293.2 yards and was 49th in driving distance. (Still, he managed to win five times and earn Player of the Year honors.)
Then there was this exchange with Gary Woodland last Sunday at Hoylake.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I finally found a driver and a ball I can hit 320 again in the air,’” Woods said of his conversation with the long-hitting 30-year-old. “Yeah, in the air. So the game has changed a lot since then.”
Especially for the 38-year-old Woods.
Will he catch Nicklaus? Who knows, but this week at Hoylake, and next month at Valhalla, another venue Woods has won at, each figure to play a role in at least part of the answer. And with every missed opportunity that answer becomes a little bit clearer.