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A major shift in greatness; Winning one major is a monumental feat

Webb Simpson said there were times when he could barely feel his legs on the back nine Sunday. There was a moment, while navigating the 18-hole fright house known as the Olympic Club course, when Simpson muttered to himself, "I don't know how Tiger has won 14 of these things."

The same thought occurred to me after Simpson won a battle of attrition to win the 112th U.S. Open by a stroke. It is incredibly difficult for even the best golfers to win a major nowadays. Every time a fresh face emerges to win one, it's even more amazing to think how Woods dominated them in the past.

Yes, Woods went to pieces over the final two rounds at Olympic, inspiring a renewed chorus of doubters who feel he's through as a dominant force and has no chance of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 14 major titles.

That's a fair criticism. There was a time when I believed that Woods would shatter Nicklaus' record, a copy of which he had tacked on the wall of his bedroom as a child. But after Woods endured four knee surgeries and public exposure as an unfaithful husband, I no longer felt he would eventually pass Jack.

But that shouldn't close the discussion of who was better. The more time goes by, the more I appreciate what Woods did from 2000-08, when he won 12 of 33 majors. That's staggering, and even more so when you consider how hard it is to win one in the current era.

Simpson was the 15th different winner in the last 15 majors, going back to Padraig Harrington at the '08 PGA Championship. Simpson was the ninth straight first-time winner, easily the longest such streak since the Masters became a major in 1934.

The talent pool is much deeper and wider than in Nicklaus' era. The sport is more lucrative, the equipment and instruction more evolved, the competition keener. Golf has become much stronger around the globe.

From 2008-12, 10 different non-Americans have won majors (Harrington won twice). That's the same number of non-U.S. players who won majors during the entire 25-year period when Nicklaus won his 18. During a nine-year run between the 1970-79 British Open, Gary Player was the only non-American to win a major.

That tells you how much tougher the fields are now. No wonder Simpson's legs were jelly. Winning one major is a monumental feat. A lot of top players haven't accomplished that much.

Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world and hasn't won a major. Lee Westwood is forever in the hunt, but still searching for his first. So are Matt Kuchar, Sergio Garcia, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson.

Woods can still catch Nicklaus if his knee and his desire hold up. It's not as if he's fallen off the map. He's won twice this year.

He is ranked No. 4 in the world, just ahead of Simpson and Bubba Watson, the Masters champion. ?He has 73 career wins and will probably pass Sam Snead's career record of 82.

It was Woods who set 18 majors as his holy grail. That doesn't mean it has to be the ultimate standard of his career. It's harder to win majors today than in Nicklaus' time.

Maybe the question shouldn't be whether Woods catches Nicklaus, but who was better relative to his time period and peers.

Critics say Woods will never be as dominant as he was in his prime. That's a pretty high standard.

They're measuring him against the greatest of all time.?

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com