That said, the Golden Bear won’t be all that unhappy if Woods comes up short.
“Why would I want to give up my record?” Nicklaus said on Tuesday, shortly after arriving at Augusta National and wearing the green jacket he earned for capturing six Masters titles. “Why would I say that?”
Nicklaus used to say it was a mere formality that Woods would eclipse his record of 18 major titles. No one disagreed, especially after Woods hobbled to his 14th on one good leg at the 2008 U.S. Open.
He was still in his early 30s. There was plenty of time to knock out five more major titles, plenty of time to make his case as the greatest golfer ever.
Then, it all fell apart for Woods. His marriage crumbled after revelations of numerous extramarital affairs. His golf game has yet to find its form as he tries to pull off yet another major swing change.
“I think Tiger will probably break my record,” Nicklaus said. “I hope I’m around to see it if he does. But nobody wants to see their record broken.”
Heading into the first major of the year at the Masters, it’s not a surefire bet that Woods will become the greatest major champion this sport has ever had.
“Last year was an important year,” Nicklaus said, fully aware the 2010’s biggest events were at courses that favored Woods’ game. Augusta National. Pebble Beach. St. Andrews. All places where he’s romped to dominating wins. “I knew if he won one or two, he would break the record more easily.”
Woods didn’t win any.
“Now,” Nicklaus said, “this year is a very important year for him.”
Woods is 35 years old – in the prime of his career. But he’s no longer the intimidating force he once was, the golfer who always discovered a way to win in the final round.
Nicklaus usually couches any predictions about Woods becoming the greatest major champion ever by saying, “He still has to do it.” These days, those words have a lot more meaning.
“The longer it goes,” Nicklaus said, referring to Woods being stuck on 14 major titles, “the tougher it’s going to be. That’s just simple mathematics.”