DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods, dressed in a royal blue shirt, hopped over a short fence and onto the range at Muirfield Village. Jack Nicklaus, in gray blazer and tie, hosted a ceremony on the other end of the range.
Two players so closely linked in golf history suddenly seem so very far apart.
A year ago, after Woods won the Memorial for a record fourth time, Nicklaus was more convinced than ever that Woods was going to take another step toward his record 18 majors.
“I suspect No. 15 will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks,” Nicklaus said, referring to the U.S. Open. “If he drives the ball this way, and plays this way, I’m sure it will. And if not, it will surprise me greatly.”
Woods didn’t win the U.S. Open because of a balky putter. He didn’t win the British Open because of a shocking six-hole stretch in Turnberry that caused him to miss the cut. He didn’t even win the PGA Championship despite a two-shot lead going into the final round.
If that wasn’t enough to make Nicklaus wonder whether his record was safe, he watched Woods’ personal life unravel with sordid tales of infidelity that shattered his image.
One thing hasn’t changed, though.
Nicklaus still talks more in terms of “when” than “if” while talking about Woods’ pursuit of his record.
“I don’t think my feeling has changed,” Nicklaus said. “I felt for a long time that my record would probably get broken someday. Tiger has come along, obviously the best player that’s come along in a long time.
“Do I still think Tiger will break my record? Yeah, I think he probably will,” he said. “He is a very dedicated, hard-working golfer. But then again, I’ve always said you have to do it. It’s not just a gimme. You’ve got to go do it. We’ll watch.”
Adding to his tumultuous six months were Woods’ last two tournaments – events unbecoming the world’s No. 1 player. He missed the cut at Quail Hollow with the highest 36-hole score of his career, then failed to finish The Players Championship because of a neck injury that only Woods knew about.
Of greater interest to Nicklaus is what happens in the next two majors.
First up is the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which Woods dominated like no other 10 years ago with a 15-shot victory. Then it’s off to St. Andrews for the British Open, where Woods has won twice by a combined 13 shots. He will try to become the first player to win the claret jug three times at the home of golf.
Nicklaus won two of his majors at the British Open. He won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and nearly won another won until Tom Watson holed a chip for birdie on the 17th hole of the final round.
“Pebble Beach and St. Andrews were important golf courses for him,” Nicklaus said. “He basically won on those fairly easily through the years. If he has problems with those golf courses, sure, they won’t come around for a while. Maybe it might be tougher.”
Catching or even passing Nicklaus sure looks harder than it did a year ago.
Woods has never been more unpredictable than he is now. He went from a tie for fourth at the Masters – amazing in that it was his first competition in five months – to struggling to break 80. His health is now in question. His credibility is at an all-time low. Whatever is going on with his swing he’ll have to figure out on his own because he split with coach Hank Haney two weeks ago.
Even some of his peers are starting to wonder if he can catch Nicklaus.
“A year ago, I would have said 100 percent chance,” Robert Allenby said. “Now I would say 70 percent. It’s just the instability in his life right now, and the way he has played golf. And the older you get, it doesn’t get easier. But he’s still the fittest athlete in the world.”
Woods won 10 majors before he turned 30, and he won his 14th major when he was 32, well ahead of the Nicklaus pace. Then came a third knee surgery that kept him out eight months, and personal problems that kept him out five months.
Even among his closest friends, there is some doubt.
“It has changed a bit,” John Cook said. “I thought at one point he would win 25 majors. I do think he’ll break the record. But I think with last year and this year, getting golf back in his mind is a difficult task. And just because he loves St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, that doesn’t make it automatic. He’s got to find his golf swing, believe in the golf swing and have no other drama off the course.”
Even so, time is critical.
Nicklaus won 14 majors in his first 14 years on the PGA Tour, and it took him 11 years to win his final four majors. That includes the 1986 Masters at age 46, which Nicklaus jokingly referred to as a “mistake.”
Nicklaus believes most golfers hit their prime in the mid-30s, the area Woods is approaching.
The one thing Woods has going for him is a finish line. He knows that 18 majors represent the benchmark for greatness in golf. Nicklaus wasn’t even aware of the record he was chasing – Bobby Jones’ 13 majors – until he won his 10th. He broke the record when he was 33, and Nicklaus no longer had a carrot to chase.
Thinking his record would be broken, Nicklaus only wondered whether he would be around to see it. When Woods came along, the Golden Bear figured it would be a matter of time.
“I just want to be the first one there to shake his hand,” Nicklaus said.
He might have to wait longer than he would have expected a year ago.