In Sammy's shadow
No matter what Tiger Woods does this weekend, or what he does next week at The Greenbrier Classic, it won't change the national focus on his drought in major championships.
As most rabid golf fans and many casual observers know, Woods is chasing Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Woods has been holding at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open, a remarkable win considering his knee injury.
But as Woods addressed his upcoming start in the AT&T National, he talked about another piece of golf history, one in which he is equally versed. When he won the Memorial Tournament earlier this month, he tied Nicklaus for second on the PGA Tour's all-time list with 73 wins.
Woods knows who reigns in that category: Sam Snead.
After he plays his host tournament this week at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., Woods will get a close-up look at the legend of Slammin' Sammy. As he makes his much-anticipated visit to The Greenbrier Classic starting July 5, Woods will step foot on an Old White course Snead called home.
Like fellow greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Snead was born in 1912 - 100 years ago.
"As I delved more into the game and was probably in high school, I started understanding Sam's contribution to the game of golf and his consistency," Woods said at an afternoon press conference Tuesday. "I mean, he won at age 52, I think it was, at Greensboro. To do it for that long is truly amazing. Absolutely, truly amazing."
Yep, the 36-year-old Woods has done his homework. In 1965, Snead was just short of his 53rd birthday when he captured the Greater Greensboro Open. That was his 82nd and final PGA Tour win, but he didn't stop there.
He made a U.S. Open cut at age 61. At 62, he finished three shots back at the PGA Championship. At 67, he shot his age at the Quad Cities Open.
Woods may or may not know all those details, but he gets the gist.
"You know, I don't think that - at the time when he passed [in 2002], it wasn't - people didn't appreciate it, what he had done," Woods said. "On top of that, who he did it against. You compete against Hogan and Nelson your entire playing career - those are two tough guys to beat, and he did it."
But Woods knows a 19th major victory will carry much more fanfare than an 83rd overall Tour victory. He knows the scrutiny of his recent results in majors, which include a 40th-place finish in the Masters and a weekend slip to 21st at the U.S. Open.
Showing a fair knowledge of men's tennis, Woods served an analogy.
"Well, I think it's the same thing, why was Pete Sampras' record [of 14 Grand Slam titles] so much greater than what Jimmy Connors has done?" Woods said. "No one really knows how many wins he's had. I don't know, is it over 100? I believe it's over 100."
(To be exact, Connors had 149 singles titles, though he won just eight Grand Slams.)
Before talking about Nicklaus and Snead, Woods talked about how his approach to those records, and how to stay healthy and competitive. Responding to a question about LeBron James, he mentioned how Michael Jordan adapted and improved other aspects of his game when he realized he couldn't just jump over defenders.
When Woods began overhauling his swing, the consideration was his balky knees.
"I didn't want to play the way I did because it hurt, and it hurt a lot," he said. "Was I good at it? Yeah, I was good at it, but I couldn't go down that road, and there's no way I could have had longevity in the game if I would have done that.
"Four knee surgeries later, here we are. I finally have a swing that it doesn't hurt, and I am still generating power, but it doesn't hurt anymore."
Without the pain, he is playing back-to-back tournaments for the third time this year. Looking at his yearly pattern, he doesn't often play consecutive "regular" tour stops - his back-to-backs usually include a major or another higher-profile event such as The Players Championship.
He has never played more than 21 official tour events in a year, last doing so in 2005. Trying to stay healthy is one reason, but maintaining his renowned focus may play a greater role.
"Well, that's one of the reasons I don't play that much is to make sure that I'm focused and I'm excited, I'm ready, physically fit and mentally ready to play," he said. "You know, if I played 30 times a year, 30-plus times a year, I don't think I would be as ready as I am each and every week I tee it up."
"And when I think of how my career has turned out, I think I've done the right thing."
That's a big reason Classic officials will not take Woods' visit - or his pursuit of the sport's legends - for granted.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.