Just picture the scene: Tiger Woods, age 40, steps to the No. 1 tee at storied Oakmont Country Club, outside Pittsburgh, for the 2016 U.S. Open. He stands at 17 major titles and needs one more to match Jack Nicklaus.
The whole sports world buzzes in anticipation. It would be akin to Hank Aaron chasing Babe Ruth's home run record.
This scenario spins in more doubt than ever in the wake of Woods missing this week's U.S. Open. His drought in the marquee tournaments will reach three full years, raising fresh skepticism about his chances of breaking Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.
Nobody knows the answer because nobody knows how long Woods' knee and Achilles injuries will hamper him. His left knee has become a persistent problem, requiring four surgeries and turning into the single biggest obstacle on the climb up Mount Nicklaus.
But we know this: It would be great for golf if Woods threatens Nicklaus' record. Even if he doesn't win 18 or 19 majors, simply reaching the doorstep would pump unprecedented intrigue into the game, offering sustained and captivating theater.
The narrative always featured a strong sense of history, given its link to the Nicklaus era, but now it contains several compelling layers. Woods' rise, fall, personal travails, physical problems and (potential) comeback make for an even richer story line.
Just imagine the electricity if Woods, with a shot at catching or passing Nicklaus, tussled with Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler or another dynamic player from the next generation. That would count as extraordinarily cool.
The problem, of course: Woods remains stuck on 14 majors. His winless streak on the grand stage has reached 12, dating to his one-legged, 91-hole triumph at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open.
At least one interested observer, defending champion Graeme McDowell, did nothing to downplay Woods' impending absence at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C. McDowell called it a "massive blow" to the game.
"We all hope as golfers that his health can come back," McDowell said of Woods. "Golf needs him. He has been golf for the last 15 years."
The Open at Congressional will mark the first time since 1994 that Woods has missed either the Masters or U.S. Open, the two biggest tournaments in this country. Woods even hijacked headlines in many of the past 11 majors, without winning:
-- Y.E. Yang surged to victory in the 2009 PGA Championship -- as Woods squandered a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time in his career.
-- Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters with his outrageous shot on No. 13, but Woods commanded nearly as much attention by tying for fourth in his first post-scandal start.
-- Woods surged into contention by shooting 66 in the third round of last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, ultimately won by McDowell.
-- The chatter at last year's PGA Championship, before Dustin Johnson's bunker blunder, mostly centered on Woods hooking up with instructor Sean Foley, launching another swing change.
Congressional, then, will offer a rare chance for the other top players to operate away from Tiger's long shadow. And it will give Woods a chance to rest his ailing knee and Achilles, injuries far more serious than he first suggested.
Now, unlike three years ago, Woods is listening to his doctors. He knows he's more vulnerable at 35 than he was at 32, and Congressional doesn't hold the personal significance Torrey Pines did. (That's where he played his first 18-hole round with his dad, Earl.)
Plus, his game is nowhere near ready to produce the type of stirring victory he authored at Torrey. Woods' injuries, beyond keeping him out of tournaments, are preventing him from working on his new swing. That's a huge problem, as Woods seems to recognize by taking an extended break.
He needs to recover, because golf needs him to make Nicklaus sweat -- otherwise, Woods will be remembered as much for the majors he didn't win as the ones he did.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.