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Woods' race to catch Jack depends on wounded knee

DUBLIN, Ohio – Jack Nicklaus doesn’t want Tiger Woods to break his recordof 18 major championships.

But he does want him to be healthy enough to try.

Nicklaus told him as much last Friday when Woods called to say that for thesecond time in four years, he wouldn’t be able to play in this week’s MemorialTournament because of an injury to his left leg. Woods missed in 2008 whilerecovering from minor surgery to clean out cartilage damage in his left knee.

This time the culprit is a combination of a minor knee sprain and hisAchilles, which was bad enough to cause him to leave The Players Championshipafter only nine holes.

Woods hopes to play the U.S. Open. Trying to win majors starts with playingin them.

“I don’t know the extent of his injuries,” Nicklaus said Tuesday. “I toldTiger when I was on the phone with him - which is the same thing I’ve said tohim a thousand times - ‘Tiger, nobody ever wants their records to be broken …but I certainly don’t want you not to be healthy and not have the opportunity toplay to break records. I want you to get yourself healthy, do what you have todo to go play, get your golf game back in shape, and I wish you well.’

“I would say that to any athlete and anybody, because I think that’s theway it should be,” Nicklaus said. “But what his situation is, I don’t know anymore than what I read.”

It wasn’t long ago when Woods appeared to be a lock to not only catchNicklaus, but to break the most recognized record in golf.

He won his 14th major in the 2008 U.S. Open at age 32 - Nicklaus was 35 whenhe won his 14th major - and even after reconstructive surgery on his left knee,Woods went into the weekend of the 2009 PGA Championship with a four-shot lead.He was two rounds away from winning No. 15, with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews onthe rotation the following year.

It all changed so quickly.

He lost the lead - and the PGA Championship - to Y.E. Yang . Then cameThanksgiving night and revelations of serial adultery, which led to divorce. Hehired a new swing coach. He is in the middle of a slump that once seemedunfathomable. He has fallen out of the top 10 in the world ranking for the firsttime in 14 years.

And now there’s another injury that makes Woods seem a lot older than 35.

For all that has gone wrong with Woods during the last 18 months, his healthmight be the most troubling - at least as it relates to his golf, and especiallyin context with Nicklaus.

Nicklaus won 70 times in 19 years on the PGA Tour before the first sign ofan injury.

“Physically, I was pretty darned good,” he said.

Two weeks after he won the 1980 PGA Championship at Oak Hill for his 17thmajor, he had to withdraw from the final round of the World Series of Golf atFirestone with a bad back. About two years later, his back flared up again atthe 1983 Masters and he had to withdraw early in the second round.

The first time he had surgery was in 1984, when he hurt his left knee whileplaying tennis.

“I went and had it operated on and I won the Skins Game 17 days later,”Nicklaus said. “So obviously, it wasn’t a very major operation.”

Woods already has had four surgeries on his left knee.

“I’m sure down the road it may be more difficult,” he said. “Buthopefully, I’ll be in a cart by then on the senior tour. But between now andthen, I should be pretty good.”

It’s that area between now and then that has become such a mystery.

Woods says the state of his left leg is not the “doomsday” he keepsreading and hearing about in the media. And don’t forget, it was only two monthsago that he shot 31 on the front nine of The Masters to tie for the lead untilhis putter failed him on the back nine and he wound up in a tie for fourth.

Asked to handicap Woods’ chances of catching him now, Nicklaus could onlyoffer, “I would have no clue.”

What amuses Nicklaus is talk that the chase is over, even if Woods doesn’tmake it to Congressional in two weeks for the U.S. Open, or plays in the othertwo majors that follow this year.

“That’s ridiculous,” Nicklaus said. “You guys control that. By the timeyou get through writing somebody off, they may as well go sell their clubs.Tiger is hurt. He hasn’t been able to play. By the time you get done with him… there’s 400 golfers in front of him. You know what I’m saying. It getspushed too far.”

Even if Woods were to go winless this year, he would still have the samenumber of majors that Nicklaus won at age 35. Nicklaus believes that a player inhis era was “old” in his late 30s. These days, he thinks “old” is over theage of 45.

If that’s the case, Woods has some 40 majors still to play. But that dependson his health.

“That 18 is our benchmark in our sport,” Woods said last week. “No onehas played the major championships better than Jack has. It took Jack over 24years to do what he did. I still have plenty of time, and I feel that goingforward, I’m excited about playing major championships and playing golf again.

“I just want to be healthy and solid,” he said. “And I feel like I cangive it a go.”