ATLANTA (AP) — Tiger Woods had a clean palette to work with in the Tour Championship.
Teeing off ahead of everyone else Friday, an empty course in front of him, he produced a work that symbolized what he's become on the golf course.
Part masterpiece. Part color-by-numbers.
When Woods walked blankly off the 18th green at East Lake — worn out and looking older than his rapidly approaching 38th birthday — it's never been clearer.
Jack Nicklaus' record is safe.
There's no way Woods is going to win four more majors, which would tie the Golden Bear's mark of 18 titles, much less the five he needs to have it all to himself.
One or two? Sure.
Four or five? Not a chance.
"Just ran out of gas," Woods said glumly. "I'm tired."
No doubt, he's still one of the world's best players. Heck, he's ranked No. 1 in the world and has won five times this year, more than twice as many victories as anyone else. But, quick, name any of them. Woods, you see, can still win on those courses where he's always been successful. Otherwise, we're watching a slow, unstoppable slide that was probably accelerated by his shenanigans off the course a few years ago.
Time didn't stand still for Nicklaus. Or Arnold Palmer. Or Ben Hogan.
It won't for Woods, either.
The guy who seemingly made every big putt in his prime can no longer rely on that facet of his game with impunity, the surest sign of a golfer in the throes of middle age. There's also a body that keeps breaking down, something that all aging athletes must face, but seems to be affecting Woods earlier than most — perhaps because he started so young. He's already had four surgeries.
Once, the mere sight of Woods' name on the leaderboard would cause his rivals to shakes in their spikes. Now, he's just another guy they think they can beat — tougher than most, perhaps, but no longer a snappily dressed version of "The Terminator."
Woods started the Tour Championship with a birdie-less round of 73, leaving him next-to-last in the elite 30-player field. He had the gallery roaring Friday when he strung together four birdies in a stretch of six holes, pushing him to 5-under for the round and 2-under for the tournament.
"It's never over with that guy," one fan shouted optimistically.
That Tiger is gone, probably forever.
An errant drive at the 14th struck a tree left of the fairway, and he passed on a chance to punch it back in the fairway — which likely would've ensured no worse than a bogey. Instead, he turned to his left, eyeing an opening in the trees, and tried to cut it in a greenside bunker. He wound up next to the port-a-potties and took a double-bogey 6.
He could've bounced back quickly — the par-5 15th is second-easiest hole on the course — but his second shot plopped in a bunker left of the green, a sloppy sand wedge left him 18 feet short of the cup, and two putts resulted in a par that felt more like a bogey.
An atrocious chip from just off the 16th green led to an actual bogey, but was a mere warm-up for the mess that followed on No. 17. With his legs feeling like rubber, Woods yanked his tee shot into the water lining the entire left side of the fairway. After taking a stroke penalty and a drop in one of the member tee boxes, he left his next shot about 88 yards short of the flag. A hideous wedge came up far short of the green, and he switched to the putter to get it up the hill. Instead, the ball stopped a few inches shy of the short grass. Incredibly, after taking four swings and five strokes, Woods had yet to reach the green. He wound up with a triple bogey.
Woods had one more hole to go, but he was all done. He shot 71 and was 14 shots behind leader Henrik Stenson.
"It's just been a long, long grind," Woods would say a few minutes later.
About the same time Woods' round was falling apart, Nicklaus was over in Charleston, S.C., for the opening of a pizza restaurant. He's an investor in the place with his son, Gary. As always, the Bear was asked about Woods' major drought, which dates to the 14th of his titles at the 2008 U.S. Open.
"If you look at it realistically, Tiger's probably got another 10 years of top golf," Nicklaus said. "That's 40 majors. Can he win five of them? I think he probably will."
That's been his standard reply. More relevant is the record book.
Hogan is the only player to win five majors after his 38th birthday — the number Woods needs for the record. Nicklaus and Old Tom Morris after the only others to win as many as four after the age that Woods will turn on Dec. 30. Also consider: Gene Sarazen is the only player to win as many as four more majors after a major-less streak as long as Woods'.
No matter what Nicklaus might say for public consumption, he can rest easy.
His record is safe.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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