As Nicklaus built his skill, as he built victory upon victory, he also built an intimidating mystique that added to his edge.
Tom Weiskopf once captured the nature of the edge with a classic quote.
And those memories led Weiskopf to repeat his classic quote.
“As you looked at Jack Nicklaus at the first tee, you knew that he knew that you knew that he was going to beat you that day,” Weiskopf said.
So much of golf, tour pros will tell you, is played in the mind. If you don’t step on the first tee believing you can beat somebody, you probably won’t. Nicklaus won a lot of duels before they even began.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was Nicklaus’ foes who lost before teeing it up.
“Belief is a huge factor,” Weiskopf said. “There is no doubt about it.”
That’s what makes Woods’ quest to break Nicklaus’ record for most professional major championship victories so difficult to figure as Woods prepares to rebound from the worst year of his career and renew his chase.
How much of Woods’ quest will be about regaining his confidence? And how much will be about the confidence his foes have gained?
How much more difficult will winning majors be for Woods without the psychological edge he built? How much more difficult will it be with his competition emboldened?
Weiskopf’s career fell in such a way that he had a unique view of three of the most formidable mystiques in golf history.
Weiskopf played against Nicklaus, and he also played against Ben Hogan late in Hogan’s career, when Hogan was still an intimidating ball striker but not as good with the putter. Though Weiskopf never played against Woods, he’s played three practice rounds with him, and he’s watched him a lot.
In Nicklaus, Hogan and Woods, Weiskopf got to see how an intimidating aura tilted the playing field.
Nicklaus and Hogan eventually lost their advantages between the ropes, but the loss came in a slow fade, with age and the deterioration of skills. They never lost their mystique off the course.
Woods is different. He lost his mystique all at once, on and off the course.
Woods’ mystique might have been more formidable than Nicklaus’ or Hogan’s because he was even more successful with a lead in the final round of a major. Woods appeared more unbeatable than Nicklaus or Hogan. Woods was 14-0 with the lead in a final round of a major before Y.E. Yang beat him at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2009.
The personal turmoil that’s followed revelations of Woods’ infidelity, the loss to Yang, the winless struggles last year and the head-to-head loss to Graeme McDowell have dramatically changed the way players look at Woods.
“I think it will be very difficult for Tiger now because of the perception people have of him,” Weiskopf said.
You can hear the emboldened nature of Woods’ competition today.
“Bring it on,” Rory McIlroy said when asked about Woods’ improving game while in New York this winter.
This was after McIlroy said European Ryder Cuppers were eager for a chance to beat Woods last fall.
Ian Poulter called Woods “No. 2” at the Chevron World Challenge after Woods lost his No. 1 ranking, a bold little payback for Woods chiding Poulter in the past.
And then there was PGA Tour veteran Scott Verplank, who last month said Woods’ “shield of invincibility has been dissolved” and that players were not all that worried about Woods anymore.
The playing field is less reverent for Woods, less hospitable.
Plus, tour pros aren’t being peppered with questions about what makes Woods so great. In fact, for nearly a year, they’ve been asked what they see hindering his game and if they think he’ll regain his winning form.
Weiskopf, who claimed 16 PGA Tour titles, including the ’73 British Open, wonders like everyone else how Woods will respond in this new environment.
“Perception is very difficult to achieve, but just as difficult to overcome,” Weiskopf said. “I wouldn’t want to bet against Tiger, because time is on his side, but he had the perception of being perfect. Everything about him was marketed correctly. And the way he answered questions, he was almost infallible, more perfect than the pope. Well, that perception is gone.
“Tiger has now experienced what everyone who has played the game has experienced. He has gone through injury, he has gone through troubling times.”
As formidable as Nicklaus was, Weiskopf believes Woods’ advantage over this generation was greater than Nicklaus enjoyed in his time.
“Only time is going to prove what I’m going to say, but I do believe Jack Nicklaus competed against a more experienced, proven group of champions,” Weiskopf said. “I think there was less intimidation, more desire and belief in those individuals Nicklaus competed against. Look at the Hall of Famers he played against. I think there was more belief that they had a chance than there was in the first 10 or 12 years of Tiger’s career.”
But there’s another factor that Weiskopf gives to Woods that Weiskopf believes is overlooked.
With dramatic advances in club and ball technology, Weiskopf says equipment has been a great equalizer for the foes trying to beat Woods. It’s more difficult today, Weiskopf believes, for Woods or any skilled player to separate himself.
Still, Weiskopf favors Nicklaus when asked who he believes will be remembered as the greatest player. He says the greatness in Nicklaus goes beyond the 18 majors he won. He says it’s in the fact that Nicklaus finished among the top three in an astounding 46 majors.
“Nobody’s ever going to do that again, ever,” Weiskopf said. “Only time will prove whether Jack was the greatest player or not, but I think he is.”
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell