“If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard,” Nicklaus said Friday.
But it starts with Woods playing, and not even Nicklaus knows when the world’s No. 1 player will return from an “indefinite break” while he tries to salvage his marriage from the blockbuster publicity of extramarital affairs.
Woods has never missed a Masters or a U.S. Open since 1995.
“I don’t know the answer what he’s going to do and what he’s going to play. He’s the only one who can answer that,” Nicklaus, who won 18 majors in his career, said during a conference call ahead of his 70th birthday on Jan. 21. “Certainly, this year with where the majors are … he basically owns all three places.
“If he doesn’t play this year, the chore will be a little tougher.”
Woods has won 14 majors, with half of them coming at those three courses. He has won the Masters four times (the most recent in 2005), the British Open twice at St. Andrews by a combined 13 shots, and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 shots.
Oddly enough, half of Nicklaus’ major victories also came on those three courses.
Woods last won a major at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open, ending his season a week later with reconstructive knee surgery. Despite winning six times last year, he had only one good chance at adding to his major total until he lost a two-shot lead in the final round of the PGA Championship and finished second to Y.E. Yang.
He has not played since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15. Two weeks later, Woods ran his SUV into a tree outside of his Florida home in the middle of the night, and allegations of rampant affairs soon followed. Woods confessed to “infidelity” and said Dec. 11 he would take a break from golf to focus on becoming a better husband, father and person.
Woods has not been seen in public in nearly two months. Along with speculation on when he will return is how he will play with more scrutiny of his personal life than he has ever faced.
Without alluding to Woods, Nicklaus offered some insight into the emotional state required to win majors.
The Golden Bear won majors over 25 seasons, a record in golf. It started with the 1962 U.S. Open in a playoff over Arnold Palmer and ended with the 1986 Masters, when a 46-year-old Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine to win his sixth Masters.
Yes, he was getting older. His skills were starting to erode. Nicklaus said desire and motivation played a role, too. Nicklaus broke the previous record for majors – Bobby Jones with 13 – at the 1973 PGA Championship, when the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur counted toward the total.
After going without a PGA Tour victory in 1979 for the first time in his career, Nicklaus said he rededicated himself as if he were just starting his career. He revamped his swing, his short game and his attitude, and won two majors the following year.
And after that?
“I’m not even sure why I was playing golf,” Nicklaus said. “I didn’t have anybody pushing me. I was enjoying playing, but I was not enjoying playing in some ways. After 1980, I won Colonial in ’82, Memorial in ’84 and the Masters in ’86. And that was it. I don’t think my abilities left me, my focus and desire to really compete left me.
“It was difficult to compete for a long time.”
Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46 doesn’t seem so extraordinary these days, not with Vijay Singh winning a record 22 times in his 40s, or Kenny Perry five times after turning 47, one of those at the Memorial Tournament where Nicklaus is the host.
“Those are guys who didn’t have great success until the mid-30s or 40s,” Nicklaus said. “I started winning golf tournaments when I was in my teens and professional tournaments in my 20s. “There’s a certain length of time when you can focus and keep focused and maintain it. I think I maintained it for a pretty long time.”
Woods has won 14 consecutive years on the PGA Tour, three years behind Nicklaus’ record of 17 straight years.
Nicklaus now finds competition in golf course design, although most of his work is taking him overseas during the financial downturn. He said 90 percent of his work is in Asia, mostly in China. He thinks the economy is slowly turning in the United States, although “the game always struggles when the economy struggles.”
And it doesn’t help when the biggest star in golf isn’t playing.
“Tiger always has been a big influence on the game,” Nicklaus said. “But the game had Bobby Jones, the game had Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nicklaus. The game always survived that. The game will continue to go forward. Tiger is a big influence, probably the largest one we ever had. And certainly, we hope he comes back and plays.
“It’s not all about one person,” he said. “The game is a big game.”