DUBLIN, Ohio – By virtue of the duo’s unique place in the competitive cosmos, Jack Nicklaus is Tiger Woods’ only equal.
With apologies to the game’s assorted greats, it was never Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour victories or Byron Nelson’s 18 single-season triumphs in 1945 that provided a litmus test for young Tiger.
It was always Jack and those 18 major championships.
They were on the wall of Woods’ childhood home in Cypress, Calif., and have provided a benchmark for a career that was otherwise inimitable. It’s also why it’s only Nicklaus who can provide meaningful insights into Woods’ future.
Whether Woods ever reaches that gold standard of 18 majors is very much in the balance considering that Tiger needed a dozen seasons to collect 14 Grand Slam bottle caps but has failed to add to that total in his last seven.
On Wednesday at the Memorial, however, it was clear the two remain cut from the same mold when Nicklaus – whose annual meet and greet with the media at Muirfield Village is can’t-miss sports journalism – offered a telling glimpse into the mind of a champion.
“I think I underachieved all my life,” the Golden Bear allowed. “That’s why I got better. I think if you feel you’re overachieving or getting more out of what you should get then you stop working.”
For all the slings and arrows Woods has endured in recent years, it is always curious when armchair analysts begin to pick apart his frequent, and often substantial, swing changes.
It happened when he bolted Butch Harmon, with whom he’d enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, winning eight majors and 26.8 percent of his Tour starts, for Hank Haney in 2004.
The same cries could be heard when he traded Haney, with whom he won six majors, for Sean Foley in 2010, and now the chorus of concern has started to build that Chris Como, who began working with Woods last November as a “swing consultant,” is again the wrong guy.
Because that’s what once-in-a-generation types do.
“I always wanted to climb a mountain. I always wanted to get better,” Nicklaus said. “I always felt like I never really achieved what I should have achieved. I still don’t think I achieved what I could have achieved in my career.”
To be historically accurate, Nicklaus never changed swing coaches or embarked on what technical types would consider a major overhaul. In fact, he never even allowed his coach, Jack Grout, onto the practice range with him at Tour events.
“He went to a lot of golf tournaments,” Nicklaus recalled. “[But] Jack Grout was back in the bleachers, and if I wanted something I'd just walk back in the bleachers and say, ‘What do you see, Jack Grout?’ He'd say, ‘Your head position is a little off.’ And that would be about it. And it was a pretty simple thing.”
Things are not that simple for Woods.
Maybe it’s the age we live in, maybe it’s the athlete. Either way, when Woods set out early Wednesday at Muirfield Village for his first tournament since The Players and his last before the U.S. Open Como was with him for every shot.
Como was even with Woods on Monday and Tuesday when he toured Chambers Bay, site of this month’s U.S. Open. Yet, while the times and attention have changed, the challenge remains the same.
It was the same way for Woods when he was with Foley and Haney. It’s the same way for many modern Tour players. The difference is for players of the ilk of Woods and Nicklaus the status quo, no matter how dominant, simply won’t do.
The distance between Woods and Nicklaus seems to have widened in recent years with Tiger now three major starts away from his 40s. For comparison purposes, Nicklaus won just three of his 18 majors in his 40s.
But what hasn’t changed is how Nicklaus and Woods view the game and their place in it. For all his struggles in recent years, Tiger has remained steadfast when it comes to the ultimate objective.
“It's about peaking at the right time, getting everything organized,” said Woods, who has now gone nearly two years without a victory and has dipped to 172nd in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“The main thing is I want to be able to start playing again, being in contention with a chance to win. I'd like to get there more often and give myself more opportunities to win.”
Woods has always been linked to Nicklaus as a historical milestone, but the common theme between the two can’t be found in the history books. Instead, it’s always been in the duo’s relentless pursuit of perfection.