DUBLIN, Ohio — One thousand people paid $5 in early 1982 to attend a United Way golf fund-raiser that included a two-hole exhibition between a 6-year-old Tiger Woods and a 69-year-old Sam Snead, who had notched the last of his career record PGA Tour victories nearly 17 years before.
One of those in attendance was David New, whose mother, Kathryn, in her role as the event’s organizer, first brought together the pair that history may never part.
New, who served as Snead’s driver and unofficial escort that day, recalled asking Snead afterward what he thought of Woods.
“I’ve never seen talent like this before,” he said in a telephone interview, recalling what Snead said. “If the kid doesn’t burn out, he’ll be the greatest golfer the world has ever seen.”
On Wednesday, as he prepared for his next shot at Snead’s record for PGA Tour victories, Woods exclaimed upon seeing a black-and-white photograph from that day 37 years ago. It showed him putting alongside Snead at the Country Club at Soboba Springs in Southern California.
As Woods smiled at the photo of his small, unsmiling self, he said that he remembered carding two bogeys and that he had known nothing about Snead except that he was a pro who won a lot.
By 1992, it was a different story. When Woods made his tour debut in Los Angeles that year as a 16-year-old amateur, he had learned enough about Snead to be slightly unnerved when spotting him in the gallery at Riviera Country Club. Woods remembered his reaction as: “That’s Sam Snead! O.K., let’s go.”
Then he promptly hit into a gully, and in the process pulled a muscle in his back, which required medical treatment after the round. Woods ended up missing the cut.
But Snead’s prediction proved as pure as his swing. With his next victory, Woods, 43, will match Snead’s record 82 titles. The milestone could come as soon as Sunday at the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Golf Club, where Woods is a five-time champion.
On Thursday he will make his second start since winning the Masters in April to move to within three victories of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles. Woods came to the Memorial feeling “a lot better,” he said, than he did two weeks ago at the P.G.A. Championship at Bethpage Black, where he failed to advance to the weekend.
“I don’t think he’s going to let that happen again,” said Nicklaus, who added that he expected Woods to play well this week and at the United States Open in two weeks at Pebble Beach, the site of a 15-stroke Open victory for Woods in 2000.
Nicklaus, 79, accepts that his majors record is back on the endangered list. For the past several years, as Woods went through four back operations that left him questioning his future in golf, Nicklaus cautioned people not to count Woods out.
On Tuesday, Nicklaus, the host of the Memorial, said, “If he’s physically sound and it’s his desire to win and he breaks it, you know, well done.”
As for the other record, the one Woods could match this weekend, Nicklaus cares a lot less.
“Oh, Snead’s record, I don’t pay any attention to that,” Nicklaus said with a laugh. The majors were his measuring stick, Nicklaus added. He finished with 73 tour victories, and he said Snead’s record was never that important to him.
“Might be to him,” Nicklaus said, referring to Woods. “I don’t know.”
Does 18 majors beat 82 tour wins? Woods kept his poker face intact.
“To be able to come this close to get one behind Sam Snead has been pretty amazing,” Woods said, adding, “Hopefully, I have a few more.”
The two records reflect different types of mastery. Winning 18 majors requires an ability to summon a peak performance in four events each year. Winning 80 tournaments over all requires consistency and longevity.
Consider that in 10 of his first 22 seasons, Woods won at least five tour events. Of the 119 players in this week’s field excluding Woods, only 24 have won at least five tour titles in their entire careers.
“You need multiple-win seasons like that,” Woods said, “and to be able to do it for decades, that’s something I’m very proud of.”
As well he should be, said Rory McIlroy, who seemed destined to keep pace with Woods when he won five times globally in 2012.
But McIlroy has not collected more than four victories worldwide in any season since. Seven years later, he has 24 worldwide titles, including 15 PGA Tour titles.
“To have the average that he’s had, and obviously the eight-win seasons, nine-win seasons, whatever it is, if he does pass that record of Snead’s, in my book, just knowing how difficult it is in this day and age — in any day and age — to win on tour, it’s almost more impressive than the 15,” McIlroy said, referring to Woods’s major titles total. Snead’s win total includes seven major titles.
Nicklaus has been the majors record-holder since 1973, when he won the P.G.A. Championship for his 12th professional major championship, passing Walter Hagen. It was also his 14th major amateur or pro championship, which moved him ahead of his childhood idol, Bobby Jones.
McIlroy believes that if Woods does surpass Snead, who died in 2002, the record would endure for ages, beyond Nicklaus’s majors record even if Woods doesn’t claim it. “I think you’re going to see guys have shorter careers if they want to,” McIlroy said, citing the money in the game. “Yeah, I think that could be definitely a number that could stand the test of time.”
The eras may change, but the competitive DNA of each generation’s top performers is similar. In 1975, a 62-year-old Snead told Sports Illustrated why he continued to compete: “Quit competing and you dry up like a peach seed.”
Woods smiled when that quote was relayed to him.
“I love competing in golf,” he said. “I love playing.”
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