LOS ANGELES. — Former world number one golfer Tiger Woods may have to battle a bit harder for his next major victory, but a 15th title is “not out of the realms of possibility,” according to one of his best friends Notah Begay.
Woods ended the 2018 season on a high with victory in the Tour Championship at East Lake for his first win in five years after overcoming four back surgeries.
Woods, who will turn 43 on December 26, took his tally of PGA Tour wins to 80, two behind the all-time record of Sam Snead, but it is Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles that he has long coveted.
Many thought his multiple back injuries had put paid to that, but Begay, Woods’ college roommate at Stanford, says the pursuit of Nicklaus is back on the agenda.
“I think now the first win is out of the way he is focused on getting off 14 (major wins) and on to 15,” four-time PGA Tour winner Begay told CNN Sport.
“I do not think that’s out of the realm of possibility.”
Woods underwent spine fusion surgery in April 2017, paving the way for a remarkable comeback this season in which he briefly led the Open with nine holes to play before finishing sixth and came second at August’s US PGA.
He scored three other top-five finishes, and led September’s season-ending Tour Championship from start to finish.
Woods famously won all 14 of his major titles when leading after 54 holes but Begay says he will have to get better at coming out of the pack on the final day if he wants to add to his total.
“I don’t think he has as much firepower as he used to have and can go out there and dominate like we saw him in so many of his other major championships,” said Begay, the only full-blood native American on the Tour.
“I think it’s going to be a little tighter and in some cases he may have to come from behind after 54 holes which he hasn’t really been very good at in his career.”
Begay is one of the few people in Woods’ inner circle, and he admits he feared his friend’s career was over.
“I was sat in his living room right after the first surgery [in March 2014] and he was moving around like an 85-year-old man,” he says.
“I literally thought the career of the greatest golfer I’d ever known and one of my dearest friends in the world was coming to an end.”
Woods has been open about the “dark times” he faced, which is why his comeback has been so remarkable, says Begay, who now works as an analyst for Golf Channel.
“We were about two weeks removed from that victory at East Lake and I got a text from Tiger one morning and it was simply like, ‘I can’t believe I won my 80th golf tournament,’” he added.
“It still hasn’t settled with him, so that’s how big an impact it made on him personally and the ripple effect it’s having on our game is extreme -the economic benefits, the TV ratings, the interest in the game.”
The footage of vast crowds stampeding after Woods as he wrapped up his East Lake win were a throwback to his heyday in the early 2000s.
TV ratings were up 206 percent on last year and the coverage yielded the highest rating for a non-major all year, third only to the Masters and the PGA Championship in which he chased home Brooks Koepka.
“Half the people watch because they’re waiting for a train wreck or want to see him fail, and the other half want to be inspired and relive those historic wins that he had in ‘97 at the Masters or 2000 at Pebble Beach in the US Open,” added Begay.
“Those are nostalgic-type victories that make people that are at different points in their lives remember just how fun sports and golf and Tiger Woods made watching golf.”
Since his last major victory at the 2008 US Open, Woods has gone through scandal in his private life, divorce, injuries and an issue with his medications for back pain which led to a driving-under-the-influence charge in May 2018.
His back story makes him even more compelling, says Begay.
“All of the distractions and challenges Tiger has had off the golf course not only brought in more people to take an interest in whether or not he’s going to make the cut or make the putt or win the tournament and you see it in the TV ratings,” he says.
“There’s not a single player, not even close, that can drive ratings like Tiger Woods. He doesn’t have to win, he just has to tee it up.”
Despite failing to help the USA retain the Ryder Cup in France in September, all eyes will be on Woods when he tees it up again in 2019 with history beckoning.