Always gracious, Jack Nicklaus keeps saying Tiger Woods eventually will break his record of 18 major golf championships.
Yet as the 77th Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, Jack framed Tiger’s quest perfectly.
“If he doesn’t figure it out now, after the spring he’s had,” Nicklaus said Tuesday, “I think it will be a lot tougher for him.”
Now or not at all? Absolutely. As the self-appointed protector of Nicklaus’ record — and I know Jack’s on my side, deep down — I’ve crystallized this tournament as Tiger’s last chance to launch a serious run at us.
By winning three PGA Tour events this season, Woods has positioned himself for a major breakthrough that’s a long time in the making. He’s been stuck on 14 major titles ever since winning the 2008 U.S. Open, dramatically and heroically.
His last victory at Augusta National also is memorable, having launched the most natural Nike commercial in history. In 2005, he birdied No. 16 as the ball paused long enough to show the logo before falling.
The overlooked part of that victory is how Woods then stumbled with two bogeys in regulation before beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff. That becomes a telling sign of how he’s failed to finish well in the Masters lately, even while contending almost annually.
“I’ve been in the mix … and I just haven’t gotten it done,” he said.
And while Woods has played his way into the status of clear favorite this week, he’s not even close to an even-money bet anymore. The field is just too deep. For so long, Tiger warped the perspective of golf to such a degree that it was surprising anytime he didn’t win.
That’s hardly the case now.
His own struggles and the emergence of other players have converged to a point where if he wins any major title, he certainly will have earned it.
The transcripts of the Tuesday interview sessions from Augusta National are always fun to read, partly for the sake of counting all the Tiger-themed questions. This year, they’re justified.
The way Woods has played coming into the Masters, “It does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger,” Phil Mickelson said.
“He’s happy and he’s relaxed and he just feels good about what he’s doing with his game,” said his friend, Steve Stricker, “and it’s showing in his attitude, too.”
No doubt, Tiger is in a better state after all of his turmoil on and off the golf course. He’s also at a fascinating point in his pursuit of Nicklaus, who once stood at 14 major titles when he was 37 years old. Guess who’s 37 right now.
“I have a lot of good years ahead of me,” Woods said.
Regarding his record, Nicklaus said Woods is “too talented, too driven and too focused on that” for him not to get to 18 or 19 majors someday. Then again, that 15th win has proven to be unattainable to this point.
Look, I didn’t wish the knee injury or the divorce or the swing flaws on Tiger, I just welcomed other golfers’ rising to overtake him in all these majors recently. The irony is I never was a Nicklaus fan in his prime, favoring Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and other young stars.
But Jack has grown on me, with such a classy, unpretentious demeanor.
This guy once wore a nametag while visiting a course he designed in Park City. Now, picture Tiger Woods doing that.
So another Masters is starting, and it’s time to play more defense.
Majors won by Tiger Woods
1997 • The Masters
1999 • PGA
2000 • U.S. Open
2000 • British Open
2000 • PGA
2001 • The Masters
2002 • The Masters
2002 • U.S. Open
2005 • The Masters
2005 • British Open
2006 • British Open
2006 • PGA
2007 • PGA
2008 • U.S. Open
Masters tee times
Augusta National Golf Club
All times MT
Note • a-amateur
6 a.m.-8:56 a.m. • Sandy Lyle, John Peterson, a-Nathan Smith
6:11 a.m.-9:07 a.m. • Larry Mize, Brian Gay, Russell Henley
6:22 a.m.-9:18 a.m. • Ian Woosnam, David Lynn, Kevin Na
6:33 a.m.-9:29 a.m. • David Toms, Richard Sterne, Ted Potter Jr.
6:44 a.m.-9:40 a.m. • Tom Watson, Ryan Moore, Kevin Streelman
6:55 a.m.-9:51 a.m. • Robert Garrigus, Carl Pettersson, Tim Clark
7:06 a.m.-10:13 a.m. • Mike Weir, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk
7:17 a.m.-10:24 a.m. • Brandt Snedeker, Ryo Ishikawa, Justin Rose
7:28 a.m.-10:35 a.m. • Jose Maria Olazabal, Marc Leishman, a-T.J. Vogel
7:39 a.m.-10:46 a.m. • Charl Schwartzel, Webb Simpson, Peter Hanson
7:50 a.m.-10:57 a.m. • Zach Johnson, K.J. Choi, Graeme McDowell
8:12 a.m.-11:08 a.m. • Michael Thompson, John Huh, John Senden
8:23 a.m.-11:19 a.m. • Stewart Cink, Nicolas Colsaerts, Thaworn Wiratchant
8:34 a.m.-11:30 a.m. • Bubba Watson, Ian Poulter, a-Steven Fox
8:45 a.m.-11:41 a.m. • Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Scott Piercy
8:56 a.m.-17:52 a.m. • Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Padraig Harrington
9:07 a.m.- 6 a.m. • John Merrick, Thorbjorn Olesen, D.A. Points
9:18 a.m.-6:11 a.m. • Craig Stadler, Ben Curtis, a-Michael Weaver
9:29 a.m.-6:22 a.m. • Mark O’Meara, Martin Laird, Jamie Donaldson
9:40 a.m.-6:33 a.m. • Paul Lawrie, Thomas Bjorn, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano
9:51 a.m.-6:44 a.m. • Trevor Immelman, George Coetzee, a-Alan Dunbar
10:13 a.m.-6:55 a.m. • Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney
10:24 a.m.-7:06 a.m. • Ben Crenshaw, Matteo Manassero, a-Guan Tianlang
10:35 a.m.-7:17 a.m. • Bernhard Langer, Lucas Glover, Henrik Stenson
10:46 a.m.-7:28 a.m. • Vijay Singh, Bo Van Pelt, Y.E. Yang
10:57 a.m.-7:39 a.m. • Angel Cabrera, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott
11:08 a.m.-7:50 a.m. • Fred Couples, Dustin Johnson, Branden Grace
11:19 a.m.-8:12 a.m. • Hunter Mahan, Hiroyuki Fujita, Francesco Molinari
11:30 a.m.-8:23 a.m. • Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer
11:41 a.m.-8:34 a.m. • Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Freddie Jacobson
11:52 a.m.-8:45 a.m. • Jason Dufner, Matt Kuchar, Bill Haas