After a news conference at the Honda Classic Tuesday, Nicklaus sounded like a giddy fan recalling putts Woods made for him when Nicklaus was the American Presidents Cup captain. His eyes danced with memories of putts Woods drained winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in dramatic finishes and winning countless other events with clutch putts.
“You don’t always learn the ability to make that 6-footer every time you need it, and he made a 6-footer every time he needed it,” Nicklaus said. “When he had to make a putt, drain-o. It’s fantastic.”
Nicklaus can relate better than any human on the planet today, maybe better than anyone who ever lived. Nicklaus had that remarkable gift to make clutch putt after clutch putt, too.
With Woods struggling with his putter now, Nicklaus was asked if he ever felt like he lost his putting mojo. It happens, after all, to the game’s greatest players. Ben Hogan lost it, Sam Snead, too. Tom Watson’s reign as a major championship force ended with putting woes.
So what about Nicklaus? He shrugged his shoulders.
“I never lost [it],” Nicklaus said. “Even today, I’m still as quiet over a putt as I was when I was 25.”
Nicklaus isn’t sure why Woods is struggling with his putter now. He certainly isn’t ready to say Woods has lost anything.
“I haven’t watched Tiger enough to know what he’s doing, but I know he’s not putting like he was,” Nicklaus said.
Woods will tee it up at the Honda Classic this week looking to shake the memories of too many missed putts in his last two PGA Tour events. With a chance to win in the final round at Pebble Beach, Woods missed five putts inside 5 feet. In his second-round match against Nick Watney at the Accenture Match Play Championship, Woods missed a 5½ foot birdie putt at the last hole to lose. Woods failed to convert a number of short birdie chances in first-round victory against Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
While Nicklaus isn’t sure what’s happening to Woods’ putting, he believes fixing a wayward putting stroke is more difficult than fixing a wayward swing.
“I think it’s easier to rebuild your long game,” Nicklaus said. “The long game should not be difficult to make adjustments to. Putting? If you lose your confidence in putting or chipping, very tough, very tough. With the long game, you are going to figure out some way to get the ball around the course.”
Nicklaus believes Woods’ swing will be fine.
“You don’t win three U.S. Opens and not figure out how to control the golf ball,” Nicklaus said. “He maybe hit some wild shots, but he knows how to control the golf ball when he has to control the golf ball, and he always has.”
Nicklaus didn’t say this, but you know he knows it. Woods needs his old putting magic back if he’s going to break Nicklaus’ major championship record.
“My opinion, I still think Tiger will regain what he does, he will come back and play very, very well,” Nicklaus said. “Whether he will break my record or not, that’s another issue. I think he probably will. He still has to go do it, not only do it, but he has to win more majors than anyone playing today. That’s a pretty good task. What is he? 36? How many majors did I win past 36? I won four.”
Woods needs five more major championship triumphs to break Nicklaus’ record.
“Will he win again? Sure, he’ll win again,” Nicklaus said. “He’s too good a player not to win again, but will he be as prolific as he was? Probably not.”
Nicklaus believes that’s due in part to the emboldened competition Woods faces now compared to what he faced in years past. Nicklaus sees a lot of young talent learning how to win.
“Tiger didn’t really have a lot of competition from guys who knew how to win, prior to now,” Nicklaus said.
And Nicklaus is impressed with the up-and-coming young stars, like Rory McIlroy.
“McIlroy’s going to win a lot of majors,” Nicklaus said.
If Woods is going to compete with young nerves in more dramatic finishes, he’ll need his putting mojo back.