Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Others Will Prevent Tiger Woods from Surpassing Jack Nicklaus

Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Others Will Prevent Tiger Woods from Surpassing Jack NicklausWith the U.S. Open getting underway on Thursday at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, all eyes are again on Tiger Woods as he continues his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record for major victories.

Woods carded a one-under-par 69 in the first round on Thursday, but these days it's looking less and less likely that Woods will ever surpass Nicklaus' 18 majors.

A decline in play from Woods and the emergence of several young stars on the PGA Tour mean that Woods has a very tough task ahead of him if he ever wants to break Nicklaus' prestigious record.

Four years ago, after Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th major victory, it seemed inevitable that he would one day pass the Golden Bear. Woods had won six majors in a 38-month span, and, at age 33, looked set to win No. 15 shortly thereafter. For comparison, Nicklaus didn't win his 15th major until he was 38 –  Tiger will turn 37 in December.

But the ailing left knee that Woods dragged through 91 holes at Torrey Pines — four rounds plus 19 playoff holes — ended up requiring surgery, preventing Woods from participating in the season's final two majors.

Woods returned to golf in 2009, but it would prove to be the most stressful year of his career. At the PGA Championship in August, for the first time in his career he lost the lead after leading at the end of the third day, dropping the tournament to Y.E. Yang. Then, in November, Woods crashed his Escalade in his driveway, leading to reports that Woods had been having several affairs and creating one of the biggest sports media firestorms in history.

Since then Woods has gone winless at every major he has played in. His highest finish has been ties for fourth on three separate occasions. The simple fact is that Woods is not the same player he was four years ago, let alone the same player who won four straight majors from 2000-2001. At 36, Woods' career is far from over — Nicklaus won his final major at 46 — but, like every athlete, his body has begun to break down. Woods battled a leg injury for much of 2011, causing him to miss both the U.S. and British Opens. When he did return for the PGA Championship in August, though, he missed the cut, carding a 77-73 to come in at 10-over.

Woods' injuries are not unique for a player his age, but they, along with his defeat to Yang, have helped lessen Woods' sense of invincibility on the Tour. Though he still commands the respect of a 14-time major champion, the PGA Tour is no longer afraid of Woods. Players like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler haven't played on a PGA Tour where Woods is winning majors in bunches, and because of that, they — and other members of the Tour's younger generation — don't fear Woods in the same way that some of his peers did during his periods of dominance from 2000-2002 and 2005-2008.

There is more to this new generation — also featuring players such as Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen — than fearlessness, though. These guys can play.

McIlroy, Bradley, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen have all won majors already, ushering in a new era of competitiveness. The last 14 majors have been won by 14 different players, and though part of the reason is the lack of a superstar like Woods in his prime, it is also due in large part to a deep pool of talented players hailing from all over the globe.

That, more than anything else, may be the reason why Woods will likely fall short of Nicklaus' tally. With so many talented players these days, it is extremely difficult to win one major tournament, let alone the five Woods needs to surpass Nicklaus.

Though Woods' form may improve from what he showed in 2010 and 2011, it's unlikely that, at age 36, he'll be able to be as good as he was prior to his injuries. Will that be enough to hold off the rest of the world five more times as Woods continues to age? We'll begin to get some answers on Sunday.

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