James Corrigan: Tiger isn't finished – but Nicklaus's record condemns him to a long false ending

That is the sort of ignominy Woods must face up to. Not the glory of winning 14 majors, but the shame of having it all in his grasp and giving it up

Is Tiger Woods finished? Or has he stopped to do a sudoko?

Ask a dumb question. And it is a dumb question, one that you'll be hearing many times in the run-up to next month's Open Championship. Without a victory in 19 months and 22 tournaments, without a left leg rigid enough to compete in this week's US Open, without a sliver of his previous saintliness on which to lean, without a caddie, maybe... It is fair to suggest it has all veered ever so slightly off script since Earl Woods announced "my son will be bigger than Mandela". Winnie, may be.

But is it fair to say he's finished? No, it's just plain arrogant unless you're his doctor or your name happens to end in "damus" or "Meg". For starters, what exactly does "finished" mean? That he's never going to play golf again? Well, he shows no sign of quitting. Not only has he just moved into a $60m mansion which boasts its own golf course (which is a bit like giving up hunting and buying Balmoral), he has recently undertaken a complete overhaul of his golf swing (which is a bit like fitting your car with a new chassis, new engine and new tyres before driving it down the scrapyard).

Is Tiger finished with contending then? Erm, in the last 72-hole tournament he completed, which was as long ago as April, he came fourth. It was the Masters; regarded as one of the toughest tests in golf. And he shot 31 on Sunday's front nine, while nursing his aching Achilles. If he's finished contending then goodness knows how the 84 players behind him must feel.

Ah, he must be finished "winning" then? Fair enough, with his track record since the fire hydrant that is a valid query to pose. Until he wins one. But even if he does prevail, in say the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, the naysayers will hardly dust off the cat-tail and start flogging themselves in forgiveness. They will say it doesn't count until he wins a major – and even if that came to pass they still wouldn't be told.

They would say Tiger doesn't win like Tiger any more and in that sense Tiger is indeed finished. The truth is Tiger stopped winning by 15 shots at the US Open 11 years ago, stopped winning by eight at the Open 11 years ago, stopped winning by five at USPGA five years ago. In fact, a mathematician wouldn't need a copy of Hustler to plot Woods' downfall. He would need his results sheet.

So where does the "finished" come into it then, how will the great answer-seekers fill out the vast acreage donated to their definitive missives? Simply by reference to one man. And when you dig a little deeper into golf's most critical contrast you will arrive at a "Eureka!" conclusion. It is not Tiger Woods who is Tiger Woods' problem. It's Jack Nicklaus.

To be honest, this didn't occur to me until I read Jason Sobel's brilliant insight on the Golf Channel website. If Nicklaus had never existed there wouldn't have been all this frenzied debate. Already Woods would have won more majors than anyone else and be the undisputed greatest of all time. His fall from grace and succeeding struggles to pick himself back up again would have been met with little more than resignation. It would have been along the lines of: "Oh well, he's won 14 majors, nobody else is ever going to catch him, who cares if he doesn't win another?" Woods might even feel the same and say "sod this for a game of soldiers" before jumping a cab over to Hefner's gaff.

Instead there's something resembling outrage as commentators fall over each other's cables to declare how Tiger has forsaken his destiny and that Jack's record of 18, once such a formality, is now on the unlikely side of implausible. Woods, they roar, now has to enjoy a career as fulfilling as Phil Mickelson's simply to bag the four majors he needs to draw level with Nicklaus. He's not going to do it! He's finished!

There's recrimination in their voices, too. Tiger, you see, was not going to do it only for Tiger, he was going to do it for the media centre, for the chroniclers who wanted the chance to sit their grandchildren on their knee and say "yes, honey, I wrote 800 words on the greatest of all time". Woods isn't just letting himself down. He's about letting down each and every one of us who stood there openmouthed and somehow felt as if we were witnessing history. Our generation's history.

As it is it will still be history, but the wrong sort. History only remembers the second best if they were big failures. Like Goliath. If that big oaf had used his size advantage like he was supposed to, David would have been crushed within a round and the supposed fight would have been written off as just the latest phoney Don King production.

That's the sort of ignominy Woods must face up to. Not the everlasting glory that should come with winning 14 majors, nine more than the legend who was the Severiano Ballesteros. But the shame of having it all in his grasp and giving it all up for a romp with a diner waitress. Yet primarily, it's not about her, or about the other 12 mistresses. It's about Nicklaus, that damned Nicklaus.

One day it'll make for a book. And then a film. But first we have to endure the reality.

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