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Nicklaus on Woods: 'I never counted him out'

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DUBLIN, Ohio – It’s hard to imagine what was going through Tiger Woods’ mind a year ago today.

At that time, he was less than 48 hours removed from an extremely high-profile arrest in South Florida for driving while under the influence and facing a wildly uncertain future.

He’d managed to play just three competitive rounds in 2017, a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open followed by a hasty withdrawal from the Dubai Desert Classic before undergoing fusion surgery on his lower back.

His Memorial Day arrest in Jupiter, Fla., led to revelations from police reports that he told officers he was taking the painkiller Vicodin and Xanax, which treats anxiety and insomnia, to cope with his fourth back surgery in April.

In a statement a month later, Woods said, “I’m currently receiving professional help to manage my medications and the ways that I deal with back pain and a sleep disorder.”

At that moment, facing an uncertain professional and legal future, he never seemed further away from his former glory. But the climb back was already underway.

In October, he agreed to a pre-trial diversion program for the DUI charge, which included a DUI workshop and community service. At the same time he was also making strides on the course, slowly and quietly playing his way back to competitive relevance.

He played his first competitive event in December at his own Hero World Challenge, gained momentum during the West Coast swing and turned back the clock and turned the sports world on its side with a runner-up showing at the Valspar Championship and a spirited charge on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

He was among the favorites to win last month’s Masters and climbed back into the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking, a meteoric climb by any measure. It’s impossible to truly understand how much ground Woods has covered in the last 12 months, but if anyone would be even remotely qualified to put Tiger’s comeback into some sort of perspective, it would be Jack Nicklaus.

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It is, after all, Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships by which Woods has always been measured, and the Golden Bear remains as relevant in the game now as he was when he won his last major championship in 1986.

Nicklaus has worn many hats when it comes to Woods, from yardstick to mentor, but on Tuesday at the Memorial he seemed to take on a new role – prognosticator.

“I never counted him out,” Nicklaus said. “When somebody said, ‘How is your [major] record, Jack,’ I said, ‘If Tiger comes back and plays I still think he's got a shot at breaking my record,’” he said.

Some may think Nicklaus is being a tad too optimistic. Woods is nearly 10 years removed from winning his last major championship at the 2008 U.S. Open and trails the Golden Bear by four Grand Slam titles.

“Time flies when you're having fun or sometimes when you're not having fun, too. I don't think Tiger's had a lot of fun the last 10 years,” Nicklaus said. “I would hate to have been through what he's been through, because he's been through a lot. But I think that he is a tough competitor, he's a hard worker, and he's still driven.”

It’s hard to imagine how a healthy and happy Tiger doesn’t at least give himself a few more opportunities to close the gap on Nicklaus’ major haul, but as the legend explained on Tuesday, the competitive landscape has changed over the last few years.

During his prime, Woods’ name on a leaderboard late on Sunday may have been Tiger’s most potent weapon. Stewart Cink once described Woods’ ability to wear down a field as a prevent defense - no mistakes, no unforced errors, just clinical proficiency.

Many of those who now dominate the game weren’t playing the PGA Tour when Tiger was in his prime; they’ve never experienced one of those classic Sunday charges.

“He's been away from the game and while he was away all these young kids have come along and learned how to play and learned how to win. And had the experience of winning and believe they can play,” Nicklaus said. “He doesn't have the fear factor that he had when he was playing, because those kids, look, oh, here comes Tiger, and they all folded up their tents and went home. Well they don't fold up their tents anymore because they have all learned how to win and learned how to play.”

Nicklaus explained that in many ways, Woods must also learn to win again, but he added, with a knowing nod, that there’s no reason to think it’s a skill Tiger can’t reacquire.

“We all have to learn how to win again,” he said.

Nicklaus offered the kind of anecdote that only a legend can. At the ’86 Masters he was six years removed from his last major victory and some thought he was too far past his prime to seriously contend.

Nicklaus teed off that Sunday at Augusta National four strokes off the lead and did little on his opening nine to help his fortunes. That was until he rolled in a birdie putt on the ninth hole.

“All of a sudden you remember, particularly if you've been a champion at one time, you'll remember and you have that to draw on,” said Nicklaus, who would beat Tom Kite and Greg Norman by a stroke for his 18th and final major. “That's what I had to draw on. Tiger has it to draw on.”

At this juncture it doesn’t seem as if Woods is in any need of a paradigm of hope - his record and growing confidence should suffice - but if there are any doubts he should look no further than Nicklaus for a reason to remain confident that he’s on the right path.