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Major streak record on the line for Tiger Woods

Jack Nicklaus holds the record in major championships, one that might never be broken because it was established through decades of superior golf and a few good breaks. About the only player who has even a remote chance is Tiger Woods.

This record is about playing, not winning.

And while Woods is still more than 25 years away from matching Nicklaus' record of 146 consecutive starts in the majors, it's worth noting now because Woods has not played since the final round of the Masters six weeks ago. And it might be even longer before he returns to the PGA Tour as he grieves the death of his father and adjusts to life without him.

Conventional wisdom has been that Woods will play next week at the Memorial, where he has won three times.

"I think Tiger will probably play," Nicklaus said over the weekend. "If he doesn't play, that's certainly his choice."

Nicklaus, the tournament host, was only guessing, which is all anyone can do.

Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent at IMG, is known in some quarters as "Dr. No" for his propensity to turn down up to 100 requests a day, sometimes without even listening to them. These days, he might as well be called "Dr. I Don't Know," because he doesn't.

"At this point, it's undecided," Steinberg said Tuesday morning.

The deadline to enter the Memorial is 5 p.m. Friday, and whether Woods decides to play probably will draw more attention than anything that happens at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.

The assumption is that Woods will want to play at least once before the U.S. Open.

If he doesn't play in the Memorial, that will be nine weeks away from tournament golf before the U.S. Open, which would constitute the longest layoff of his career. There have been three times that Woods did not play a regular PGA Tour event before a major -- three weeks off between the British Open and PGA Championship in 1999, and four weeks off between the U.S. Open and British Open in 2002, when he missed the Western Open with the flu.

But that assumes he will play in the U.S. Open. And no one can say with certainty that he will.

It would be surprising if Woods skipped a major, but not shocking.

Not in this case.

Earl Woods died May 3 at home in Cypress, Calif., the same house where Tiger climbed out of a high chair, grabbed a golf club and imitated his father by hitting a ball into a net -- left-handed until Pops turned him around to the right side. Subsequent lessons on the golf course were more about father-son than father-prodigy.

Earl did not live vicariously through his son. His goal was for Tiger to take full control of his life, which he did.

But no one knows how a son mourns the loss of his father, how long it takes until he is ready to move on. Earl also left behind a wife of 32 years, and Tiger no doubt is still tending to his mother.

"We haven't had any indication that he's not going to play," USGA spokesman Marty Parkes said Tuesday.

The U.S. Open ends on Father's Day, as usual, and what a tribute that would be. The last time a major was played at Winged Foot, Davis Love III won the PGA Championship, making a birdie on the final hole as a glorious rainbow stretched across the horizon and tears were shed in remembrance of his father, a PGA professional who died in a plane crash in 1988.

"Tiger is going to be in the same boat as me," Love said Tuesday. "Every time he goes to play golf, he'll think of his father. That's not going to change. It's going to be hard for a while, but it'll also be a positive for him down the road."

Then again, Woods is fiercely private with his family and his emotions. Does he go to the U.S. Open where the Father's Day angle is played to the hilt? Does he go to Winged Foot, one of the toughest tests anywhere, having not prepared the way he was taught?

Nicklaus also was 30 when his father, Charlie, died of cancer on Feb. 19, 1970. He didn't play the two weeks before or after his father died, skipping Doral for the only time in his competitive career, returning at what is now the Bay Hill Invitational.

"I took it in a different way," Nicklaus said. "I felt like my dad wanted me to play golf. That's what he lived for, what I did. For me to crawl into a shell, I didn't think was the right thing to do."

Nicklaus was at a different stage in his career. He was in the longest drought of his career in the majors, winless since the 1967 U.S. Open, a streak that stretched to 12 majors before winning at St. Andrews for the first time that summer. He broke Bobby Jones' record for most majors three years later at the PGA Championship, and ended his career with 18 professional majors.

That's the standard of greatness Woods now pursues.

To miss the U.S. Open would end any chance of Woods going after the other major record -- consecutive starts.

The record doesn't get much attention, but it might be the most underrated streak in sports. Nicklaus played every major from the 1962 Masters through the 1998 U.S. Open. He had to be great to win all four majors -- three of them come with exemptions through at least age 65, while the U.S. Open has a 10-year exemption. He needed some help -- the USGA gave him a record eight special exemptions. And he needed good health.

Love has the longest active streak at 63 consecutive starts, which likely will end in the next five years or so. Woods has a realistic chance only because he already has captured the career Grand Slam and because he started at age 21, one year earlier than Nicklaus.

That chance will be gone if Woods doesn't play the U.S. Open, although that's not what motivates him.

Woods will play when he's ready. And only he knows when that will be.



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