LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jack Nicklaus has never veered from one simple opinion: Tiger Woods is going to break his major championship record. He has said so repeatedly. In the mid-2000s, when Woods was collecting major championships like dust, it seemed obvious – back then just about everybody thought Woods would not only set the record but would blow past Nicklaus’ 18 majors and put it miles and miles in his rear-view mirror. How many could he win? Twenty-five? Thirty? More? It all seemed possible.
But then things began to slow down. Woods badly hurt his knee. He came back and did the unthinkable – lost a head-to-head fourth-round duel with Y.E. Yang. Then, there was the tabloid fiasco, the apology, the sluggish play, the swing changes, the constant injuries.
All along the way, though, Jack Nicklaus continued to insist that Woods will break his record.
And he does so still.
“I think the guy is just too good,” he said. “I don't know what is happening between his ears right now … somebody said the other day that they think he has the yips with the driver, and I think that is a pretty good assessment. I had never heard of that, but if you get it in your head that you can’t hit a driver in the fairway, you aren't going to hit it in the fairway very much.
“Still, I thought that his swing in the first round of the British Open was very good. I thought he came back, and it was much more level, I thought his tempo was much better. … I just think he’s too talented, too focused, to not do it.”
Now, it is true Nicklaus said this a couple of days before Woods hurt himself again at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. But it’s too easy to get swayed by today’s news. It’s just one week, one major, one point in time. This actually was one of Nicklaus’ great gifts as a golfer – he did not get swayed because one challenger had a birdie run or another seemed to be collapsing. Steady. Long view. That was Jack.
And so even though it looks bleak to others … he still thinks Woods will break the record.
“I really do,” he says.
Now, I should mention this - I told Nicklaus that I don’t think Woods will break the record. I don’t think he will tie the record, either. I haven’t thought Woods was going to break the record for a few years now. For me, it comes down to simple math.
• Tiger Woods needs five more majors to pass Nicklaus.
• He’s turning 39 this year.
• In the last 50 years, only eight golfers other than Woods have won five majors in their entire careers. None of them, not even Nicklaus himself, won five majors after turning 38.
So that seems obvious to me. But here’s the obvious thing: Nicklaus knows infinitely more about this than I do. And he is adamant. Nicklaus is not necessarily close to Woods, but they are deeply connected. They played golf on a different plane. They won by making fewer mistakes – mental mistakes, physical mistakes, emotional mistakes – than anybody else.
And so Nicklaus understands Woods. He understands the force Tiger Woods displayed winning that U.S. Open on one leg or steadying himself to beat Bob May in that PGA Championship playoff or winning that Masters to complete the Tiger Slam when everyone expected him to win. He understands where Woods’ mind goes in those big moments when a tournament is won and lost, where his mind goes when the pressure is dense and the mind and body are prone to making mistakes.
“He still has that focus and he still has that drive,” Nicklaus says. “I think that’s what it takes.”
Oh, Nicklaus doesn’t think it will be easy for Woods to win five more – he actually thinks it will be more difficult to win his next one than it was to win any of the previous 14. This is because he really likes the young group of players coming up.
“I think there is some pretty good competition on the Tour, better than it has been for a long time,” Nicklaus says. “You’ve got some guys who can really play. Rory (McIlroy) is the real thing, he’s a really good player. You’ve got Jason Day – I think he’s capable of being a very good player. … Rickie (Fowler) hasn’t won very much yet but he’s right there. … (Jordan) Spieth is getting better. You have a bunch of good young players. And each major that passes does make it harder for Tiger to do.”
The competition question is interesting. Everyone has pointed out – and Nicklaus is quick to agree with this point – that Woods won his 14 majors against a much deeper pool of good players. There are probably 40 or 50 players capable this week of playing well enough to win, way more than in Nicklaus’ day.
But Nicklaus does believe firmly that with only a handful of exceptions, Woods did not face nearly as many great golfers as he contended with.
“Tiger has had a whole bunch of guys who would give it away,” he says. “And it’s not his fault, but I had (Arnold) Palmer, (Gary) Player, (Lee) Trevino, (Tom) Watson, (Johnny) Miller, (Tom) Weiskopf, (Billy) Casper. Those guys weren't going to give it away. … If you slipped, you looked at that leaderboard. And if I saw those names on that leaderboard I knew that they weren't going to make many mistakes so I couldn't make many mistakes. But if I saw some other name - Jones, Smith, whatever - up there on the leaderboard, then I said ‘Don't get yourself in trouble and do anything stupid and you are going to win a golf tournament. Because they will self-destruct.’
“When Tiger was probably 28 or 29, he was the only golfer under 30 who had won more than one tournament. … Again, it’s not his fault. He took advantage of his circumstances.”
So, Nicklaus does think it will be much tougher for Woods against this talented new group of players who did not grow up losing to Woods but, instead, grew up watching him on television and being inspired by him. Nicklaus also knows it will be tougher the older Woods gets.
And he still thinks Woods will break the record.
“I really do,” he says. “I’ve always said, ‘I think he’s going to do it but he’s got to go out and actually do it.’ And that’s still true. But I really think he will.”
He does his own math on this. Nicklaus thinks Woods, assuming he can be healthy again (and doesn’t rashly try to come back when he’s not ready), should be good enough to contend in majors for another decade. That’s 40 majors. Nicklaus simply thinks he’s so mentally tough, so smart a golfer, and so hungry to win that he will win five of them.
Well, it’s a fascinating viewpoint. Nicklaus has watched Woods more or less from the beginning. He played a practice round with a young Woods and was so blown away he predicted that Tiger would win as many Masters as he and Palmer won combined (that’s 10 green jackets). He has marveled at Woods’ all-around game, his brilliance around the greens, his fantastic pressure putting. He has identified with Woods’ stunning patience – Woods almost never did anything reckless when trying to win a golf tournament. He understood the moment better than other golfers did. That was Nicklaus, too.
And so, after seeing all that, Nicklaus still thinks Woods will win those majors and break the record. Of course, Nicklaus is a class act too and so he would probably say that even if he didn’t mean it.
“Well, let me put it this way - I would be a pretty big jerk if I turned around and said I didn't think he could do it,” Nicklaus says, and he laughs. “But honestly, in my own mind, I believe he will.”