It has always been a question of when and not if – but now Jack Nicklaus is not sure. In fact, the Golden Bear feels that if Tiger Woods's "indefinite break" from golf stretches too far into 2010 then his major record may yet live to fight another generation.
Nicklaus was asked for his opinions in a press conference which was supposed to mark the 70th birthday he will celebrate in two weeks' time. But in comments which sounded suspiciously like a challenge to the golfer who stands four off his major haul of 18, Nicklaus opened up on the subject currently obsessing the professional fairways.
"I don't know what he's going to do and where he's going to play," said Nicklaus. "But if Tiger is going to pass my record I think this is a big year. If he does not play this year, obviously the chore will be a little tougher."
The argument from Nicklaus is a persuasive one, regardless of whether the stature of Woods the competitor will be compromised by his new status as Tiger the serial philanderer.
As Nicklaus says about the venues which will host the first three majors of the year, "Tiger basically owns all three places". Consider the fact that half of Woods's 14 majors have been gained at these courses. He has won the Masters four times, the Open twice at St Andrews (by a combined total of 13 shots) and the US Open at Pebble Beach (by a record 15 shots).
Furthermore, while Woods has won seven of the 17 majors he has contested as a professional at these courses, elsewhere he has not been nearly as successful. The ratio stands at "just" seven from 37.
Not that Nicklaus is licking his lips at the prospect of a protracted period of Woods inactivity as Tiger tries to save his marriage in the wake of the sordid revelations of what he called "my transgressions". "Tiger is a big influence, probably the largest one we have ever had and, certainly, we hope he comes back and plays," he said.
However, if Woods chooses not to, Nicklaus is clearly not one of those doom-mongers who believe it would destroy the sport. "It's not all about one person," he said. "This game is a big game. There was Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus... golf survived after us. It will continue to go forward."