by Jeff Skinner
Tiger Woods’ hunt for Jack Nicklaus’ major record is in danger of taking another big hit if Woods’ creaky back can’t recover before The Masters. At 38 Woods isn’t that lean, lithe, long hitting, fist pumping, magical putter that seemed to win majors at will.
Even a Woods that can’t win a major is good enough to maintain his number one ranking, win five PGA Tour events in 2013 and capture the Player of the Year Award from his fellow golfers. But it is all about the majors for Tiger and that means it is all about Nicklaus.
Tiger may not be in a winning slump but he certainly is in a major championship slump. Nicklaus at 38 was in a similar dilemma having not won a major in two seasons. He was stuck on fourteen, as Tiger is now and after Tom Watson bested him in both the ’77 Masters and Open Championship Nicklaus faced a crossroads in his career much like Tiger faces now.
Even for Jack Nicklaus. “My golf game can only go on so long,” a 38-year-old Golden Bear told Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford in 1978.
To close out 1977, Nicklaus, who had been skiing for a couple of years, went on a long, family vacation to the slopes in Colorado. As Tom Place reported in Golf World, Nicklaus was full of energy. “Most people are tired after a day on the mountain, but on three occasions Jack headed for the basketball court early in the evening,” Place wrote. “It seemed easy for him to keep up with his kids — even on the fast breaks. As brilliant as his mental approach is to the game of golf, Nicklaus might be the finest physically, too.”
“I couldn’t be any more confident going into the Masters,” Nicklaus said after a one-shot victory at Sawgrass. He didn’t win at Augusta, where he was seventh, or the U.S. Open (T-6), but he made a minor setup adjustment prior to the British Open at St. Andrews (he had been hitting some slightly fat iron shots) and won by two over Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd and Simon Owen.
“Sure you wonder if you’re going to win again,” Nicklaus said, after he had.
Nicklaus was in a much different place from Tiger. He may have been aging but his body wasn’t breaking down. And as far as making history, he wasn’t chasing anyone. He had passed Bobby Jones’ total of 13 and was sailing alone as the all time major winner. Who knows what Jack would have done if he had had a record to chase at that point. The was no carrot at the end of the stick.
Fields says it well, “Fourteen was just a number for Nicklaus. For Woods, it is a punctuation mark no one ever dreamed would be a period.
“I know I’ve won with something besides the shots,” Nicklaus told Deford in 1978 after rediscovering his major touch, “but I don’t know for sure what that something is.”
The first thing Woods needs now is a back that works. After that, he needs to find that “something” beyond ShotLink or TrackMan that even the best can’t define. At 38, Tiger, who once seemed to overflow with it, needs some magic.