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This is only the start of Tiger Woods’ next era and mission

 				This is only the start of Tiger Woods’ next era and mission

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Next.

It’s time to restart the Tiger Woods-Jack Nicklaus countdown.

Woods’ Masters victory Sunday at Augusta National was his 15th career major championship victory, inching him one closer to Nicklaus’ record of 18 — a record that felt so out of reach for much of the past decade with his career in doubt because of personal issues and injuries.

“This keeps 18 in play,’’ Rickie Fowler said.

“Eighteen is, I think, a lot closer than people think,’’ Brooks Koepka said Sunday after Woods vanquished him and every other final-round challenger. “I would say that’s probably what all fans … what we’re thinking — that he’s definitely back and 18’s not far.’’

Woods, after his first Masters win since 2005 and first major championship since 2008, was asked if he thought Nicklaus “should be worried’’ about Woods catching him.

“I don’t know if he’s worried or not,’’ Woods said. “I’m sure he’s home in West Palm just chilling and watching.’’

Can Woods win more majors?

Of course, he can.

Will he?

The chances improved greatly after Sunday.

I think he’ll win again, and it might happen pretty soon.

Add to the confidence Woods takes from this week’s breakthrough at Augusta the fact that the PGA Championship next month takes place at Bethpage Black, where he won the 2002 U.S. Open, and in June, the U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open with a record-shattering performance.

And if you don’t think he’ll be one of the favorites to win more Masters for the foreseeable future, you didn’t pay enough attention to what transpired this week, and specifically on Sunday.

“Everybody has been asking me about Tiger, ‘Can Tiger win again? Will he win another major?,’ ’’ Jack Nicklaus said on Golf Channel. “I thought for a long time that he was going to win again. The next two majors are at Bethpage, where he has won, and at Pebble Beach, where he has won. So, he has got me shaking in my boots, guys.”

Sure, Woods is 43. But 43 is the new 33 in golf with the way players like Woods take care of themselves. The only thing that can derail Woods from winning more majors is if he has setbacks with his back. But that fusion surgery he had has changed his life.

Asked if this win refocuses his sights on getting to 18 majors, Woods said, “I really haven’t thought about that yet. I’m sure that I’ll probably think of it going down the road, but right now it’s a little soon. I’m just enjoying 15.’’

Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, also was not about to get ahead of himself.

“Before this, I never thought about 18 for him; I just thought about 15,’’ LaCava said. “Now that he has 15, we’ll think about 16.’’

Woods’ biggest takeaway from Sunday was this: “I can win majors now,’’ he said.

When he won the Tour Championship last September at East Lake to end a five-year winless drought, Woods said that showed him he could win again. It all sounded so difficult to believe for a player who’d won 79 times, including 14 majors, at that time.

But confidence is a fragile thing, and even the greatest in the world need a shot of it every once in a while for reinforcement. So now he has 81 victories and 15 majors and, well, look out, Jack.

“The win at East Lake was a big confidence‑ booster for me because I had come close last year a couple times and I didn’t quite do it,’’ Woods said. “East Lake was a big step for me, confirming that I could still win out here and against the best players. My last three major championships have been pretty good, so that in itself gives me a lot of confidence going down the road.’’

Make no mistake: Now the pressure on Woods and his pursuit of more majors ratchets up considerably with Sunday’s breakthrough. But if anyone can handle the pressure, there’s no one more suited to do so than Woods.

Perhaps LaCava’s simple message to Woods when they got to the first tee Sunday can be invoked again at Bethpage and then Pebble in the coming months.

“I said, ‘Intense … but loose. Don’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders,’ ’’ LaCava said.

Woods played like he took heed to LaCava’s advice, and now the weight of the world has been lifted from his shoulders.

Until Bethpage in May.

Next.

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