It's probably time to start defending the numeral 14.
The numeral 14 is huge, towering and beautiful. It's -- and here's an overused word that does fit -- amazing. It pretty much laps at the shores of absurd.
It's just that across the last six years, the numeral 14 has started looking ordinary and maybe even puny. Maybe we're all a little weary of 14, especially those of us who have had to type it repeatedly. So often have we typed that Tiger Woods has "14 major titles" or is "stuck on 14 major titles" that you wonder if it ever could reach the use of the bizarre passage "only 14 major titles," and so it has.
Luckily, the BBC blogger meant it wryly.
In this rare case, the only problem with 14 is that it remains smaller than 18. In the entire existence of 14, 14 has never been able to escape this reality, and the chances are very good that it never will. And with 14 forever stuck somewhere beneath 18, we might go back to the outset of Woods' career and note the boldness of something that long since grew routine.
Pretty much from the get-go, we all knew the story of Woods as a child putting Jack Nicklaus' records on his bedroom wall, such that it became an accepted ring of American sports lore, such that it became almost folkloric. Like most folklore, it might have even been true. Woods certainly confirmed it, but better than that, he never denied he intended to chase Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.
I have always, always thought that took a certain bigness of balls, even as it became repeated enough to become routine and routine enough to become common parlance. This guy from Southern California would try to chase a hallowed record, a record seven ahead of anybody else when Woods started, a record ahead of second place by the same number of majors won by Arnold Palmer and by Gene Sarazen and by Sam Snead and by Bobby Jones and by Harry Vardon, all of whom were great. Not only that, but he would admit chasing it, refrain from any sort of, Hey, I'm just trying to get as many as I can, and whatever number I get is fine.
For a while there, it appeared Woods might make that 18 look not only assailable but maybe even sort of plain, a fate that would have been completely unjust for that particular 18. But now, Woods continues to contribute mightily to a fresh understanding of that 18. Having viewed it for a while as vulnerable, we ought to view it anew as majestic.
Somebody on this Earth won 18 major golf titles, battling both a harsh sport plus something else that never gets enough credit: life.
Life, with all the imperfections of 4.54 billion years of clunky evolution, has led the way in making it seem that Woods will not catch Nicklaus. Life has just turned up again on Sunday in the form of back spasms, and life is really good at those, especially for people who do something physical with unnatural repetition.
From the time he turned professional in late summer 1996, Woods spent 13-plus long seasons without walking off a golf course mid-round in a PGA Tour event. He had walked off after No. 5 as an amateur at Shinnecock Hills at the U.S. Open in 1995, when his 19-year-old left wrist had met up with a wedge and some tall fescue grass. He had withdrawn from Riviera in 2006 after two rounds but before a third, citing flu. He had withdrawn once in 1998 before a tournament, but I'm not counting that. So that's it.
In the last five seasons, he has walked off five whopping times. He left the Players Championship in May 2010 amid No. 7 after a second shot and a grimace rooted in his neck. He left the Players Championship in May 2011 right after a 42 on the opening front nine and began discussing a knee, an Achilles and a calf. He left the Cadillac in March 2012 amid No. 12 on Sunday after a 321-yard drive, citing Achilles tightness. He left the Honda in March after 13 holes on Sunday with back spasms (and would have back surgery later that month). He left the Bridgestone on Sunday after his drive on No. 9 with more spasms.
He has left courses on holes No. 7, No. 10, No. 12, No. 14 and No. 9. He's 13 holes from the whole misery dinner set. He's clever even at withdrawing.
This buildup has altered dramatically the will-he-catch-Jack prospectus. "No" seems pretty solid by now. In addition to coping with competition from a world grown golf-madder -- note Woods' runner-up finish to the deeply impressive Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA -- and in addition to playing a game pretty much sadistic, Woods has the human body as an enemy and its unending insistence on specializing in ligaments and tendons and, of course, knees.
So by now, the numeral 14 has a chance to come across as a failure, especially given the mesmerizing early chase for 18 and the way that chase rammed up against real likelihood six "14"-strewn years ago, right after the last Monday shot at Torrey Pines. We all can see how we got here, but we all need to recalibrate. In a sport in which winning one major brings huge exhilaration, 14 is so very far from some bloody failure.