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Chasing Jack - can Woods emulate Nicklaus heroics?

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Rob Hodgetts | 07:04 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011


Twenty-five years ago, Jack Nicklaus stormed to his 18th and final major title and sixth Masters victory at Augusta at the ripe old age of 46. Nobody thought it could be done. nicklaus_226.jpg

Nobody had reckoned on Nicklaus's genius and the competitive fire still smouldering inside.

The feat holds mythical status to a certain generation, but what makes it far more than a trip down memory lane this year is the link with the travails of a certain Tiger Woods.

The former world number one was rocketing towards Nicklaus's record tally of major titles until his off-course scandal. Now, he is struggling for results after embarking on swing changes with new coach Sean Foley. He remains marooned on 14 majors and without a victory since Novermber 2009, when he quit the game for five months.

Now divorced, Woods has reached a crossroads in his quest to beat Nicklaus. If he can get to grips with the new swing, he can get back on track, and many are tipping him to be a contender for a fifth Green Jacket this week despite his modest form. His fourth place last year, after a spell out of the game, speaks volumes.

If, however, the tinkering takes him down a confidence-sapping cul-de-sac we may have seen his best years.

"When I first started I didn't think I would be at 14 majors by now," said Woods, who won his last major in 2008, aged 33.

"I'm very happy to be where I am but I certainly want a lot more. It took Jack a very long time - 20-plus years - to get to this point. It takes a career to be able to accomplish what he has."


Nicklaus won his 14th major at the age of 35 and admits he was not really expecting to
add to his haul after a six-year gap following his last major triumph in 1980.

"I was basically over the hill," he said. "I really didn't ever work at my golf game after that and all of a sudden I started playing better and all of a sudden I had a chance to win.

"It was neat. I guess no-one expected me to be in contention at that stage of my career. I didn't even know why I was playing golf then."

At the start of Masters week in 1986 a newspaper article had labelled Nicklaus "washed up". His wife had posted the piece on the door of the fridge, and Nicklaus admits he gave him extra motivation. He thought: Washed up, huh?

Impressively, the old boy was tied ninth going into the final day, four shots off Greg Norman's lead, and playing with Scotland's Sandy Lyle, who I spoke to on Monday at Augusta.

"We weren't really the main contenders; we were probably 30-40 minutes in front of the leaders and after nine holes not much was going on," said Lyle.

That was about to change.

Nicklaus, the committed family man who had his son Jackie as his caddie that week, was two under for the day and then birdied the 10th and 11th, bogeyed the 12th and made another birdie on the par-five 13th.

"Jackie had been around and played on Tour and turned to his dad on 13 and said, 'This is getting too much for my young heart'," recounted Lyle.

"Jack said to me, 'Hear what he just said? What about my old heart?' So there was a bit of humour around and maybe that's what helped. He felt comfortable on the course."

Continuing his charge, Nicklaus hit his second shot across the water to 25ft on the par-five 15th and made the putt for an eagle.

"That's when I began to think something was really occurring," said Lyle.

"The eagle lit a fuse and got the crowd going unbelievably and they never stopped from there to the 18th.

"I was one or two under myself but I was just enjoying the moment. The noise was quadrophonic, coming from above, from the side - I think even God was laughing.

"It makes your hair stand on end. I can almost feel it now thinking about it.

"It was wonderful to be part of it. I knew it was going to be part of history, though I still didn't know who was going to win."

Nicklaus said: "The ovation was unbelievable. I kept getting tears in my ears but I was saying, 'Hey let's hold that back, you've got some golf to play."

The man dubbed the "Golden Bear" then hit a stunning tee shot on the short 16th, almost holing a five iron to make another birdie.

He followed that with a birdie on the 17th, holing an 18ft putt which he stalked as it neared the hole and raised his left hand and putter in salute as it dropped.

Nicklaus made par on the 18th for a round of 65 and had to wait in the clubhouse to learn his fate.

The American eventually won by one from Tom Kite and Greg Norman. Seve Ballesteros was one further back but his challenge sank when he found the water on 15 after being distracted by the roars coming from Nicklaus's heroics up ahead on 16.

"We knew he'd done something special and it was a great privilege to watch it unfolding," said Lyle.

"It's been a wonderful thing to talk about. I was at Mission Hills in China a few weeks ago and they've got a lot of memorabilia there. They've got the scorecard of Nicklaus's last round and there's my signature on it, so it's quite something to be a part of."

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Nicklaus said: "Every place I go, people turn to me and say they remember exactly where I was during the '86 Masters - where I watched it, either I was at a friend's house or restaurant or airport or whatever. I didn't hear that for any other golf tournament but I did at the 1986 Masters."

BBC golf commentator Ken Brown, who played in the 1988 Masters, the year Lyle won, said Nicklaus's victory was almost pre-ordained.

"As a watcher you thought he'd already done everything. He had his son caddying and you thought he was just there for a wander around," Brown told me.

"He had a decent third round to come through the field but it felt impossible because he was so far behind, even until Seve hit it in the water on 15 and he holed across the green on 17.

"You thought then that this is the greatest golfer. It was a miraculous week. Augusta loved it, the world loved it. The odds were against him but that's why he's Jack.

"It was almost like his destiny - 'This is it, Jack, it's your last go'.

So does Brown think Woods can beat Nicklaus's record?

"Five more to win, that's a lot of majors," said Brown. "His technique has put more wear and tear on his body than Nicklaus's did. And mentally, Nicklaus took it in his stride whereas Woods seems to be having more of a battle with himself.

"At one stage I would almost have guaranteed that he would do it but now the odds must be about 50-50. But these super players can find something at times from absolutely nowhere. They have tremendous armoury and self belief.

"Technically, he's not miles away but making alterations is never easy. You're bound to have a fallow spell finding the feel and confidence.

"But we are comparing him to 2000, which will never happen again. No-one will play with that amount of power and accuracy to win majors and Grand Slams and lap fields.

"That happens once in 100 years. And it gets harder as you get older.

"It will be an intriguing story to see how he handles it, but he's like Nicklaus. There are a few surprises left for Tiger Woods. He's got a big heart. Never count him out."

A Woods charge would certainly reignite that "quadrophonic" thunder at Augusta.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'd love to see Woods get it together and win or contend at Augusta this year but I can't see it. I'm suspicious of these swing changes for one thing - he had a great 2009 after all, was going great guns right up until the 'scandal' - and I suspect they're not helping. His previous two remodels (to attain more consistency and to take stress of the knees) made sense, but these? Hmm, not sure. More a mental thing with him, I reckon, and that's harder to fix. His genius short game seems to have evaporated too, especially the pressure putting. You don't win many majors if you can't hole the key ones. Such an awesome talent - I rate him not just the most remarkable golfer ever but one of the most remarkable ever sportsmen period - will win golf tournaments again, and maybe another major or two, but I make him odds against now to get to or exceed the Nicklaus record. To stay in with a chance he has to have won another one by end of 2012.

  • Comment number 2.

    Fully agreed Sagamix:
    It is the mental thing mainly, not only with him, but the fact that nobody is scared of him anymore and that is a bigger problem.
    You are right, the swing seems to be in several 'disjointed' pieces, rather than the fluid and powerful swing of 2 years ago (brutal on occasions, but never disjointed).
    The guy seems to be falling apart gradually before our eyes and like him or lump him, it is a sad sight to see a golfer/sportsman of this talent doing so. He may ahve brought it on himself somewhat, but leave that aside as far as the golf goes - Nicklaus will stay as the man with the most majors, unless something changes drastically - and like you, I can't see it.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well i agree and disagree with the previous two.

    Firstly though, a blog about Woods not written by Carter *spits out coffee*

    Woods has had a couple of things going on in quick order that will affect your golf game for some time with his personal situation and swing changes. So while I'm sure he'd like to be a bit further along than he is I wouldn't count him out just yet.

    So Jack won 4 majors after the age of 35 in the age of some great players. How many of them were 'scared' of Jack? And if Tiger was in a rich vein of form then who would want to face him in the last group on a Sunday?

    Other golfers have always had two barriers, as well as Tiger being in the hunt on Sunday they've had their own psychological barriers to winning a tournament let alone a Major. Some are getting better at it and GMac last year was a great example at how to win when those moments of opportunity come up. But look at most 'one off' Major winners in the last few years and you'll see that winning a Major seems to have hurt most of them rather than be a springboard into further success.

    Course/venues are also an issue. Most informed thinking says that knowledge/experience of Augusta helps so Woods has a distinct advantage over most. He copes with links golf better than most so maybe it's the US Open and USPGA over the next few years that leaves the field more even with him.

    Agree with Sagamix on the swing issue though but as I say there's time to settle that down.

    So i'm not going for a Tiger Masters win, or even a Major win this year but if he gets his focus back and settles down technically then he'll be back on the horse properly.

  • Comment number 4.

    The problem is, Tiger is not the golfer he once was. He is also not defeating a group of semi-athletes who got in their heavy lifting with a pint at the 19th hole. Today's PGA TOUR golfer is an athlete (Scott, Choi, Westwood) who could have played football or basketball, are not afraid of 35 year olds with bum knees who haven't posted decent results in two years, and who are rapidly gaining experience to match Tiger, who doesn't play that much by tour standards.

    Now and then an athlete comes along who revolutionises a sport. The Babe Ruth, for example. But sooner or later, time and the next generation of athletes causes the great one to be swallowed up by the peleton. That is what has happened to Tiger. I'm sure he'll win a championship or three, maybe even a major. But the dominance is gone forever.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's strange the way people talk about Woods and his potential for winning more Majors and overhauling Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors. As Rob says, he needs five more to verhaul Jack's record and have the record outright. And people talk as if that's an everyday thingto do- possibly because Woods accumulated his first 14 in such a short space of time (his '97 Masters to '08 US Open victories span 11 years). But Five majors is as many as an acknowledged great like Seve Ballesteros won his entire career! Can anyone see Woods, who seems to be beyond his best, winning five more- or even the four required to draw level?
    I do not and here's why:
    - As many have mentioned, the fear factor has gone. Manyof Woods' contemporaaries such as Mickelson probabaly aren't as fearful going head-to-head against hm as they once were. The newer generation- Kaymer, McIlroy, Watney, Dustin etc. probabaly hadn't even turned pro when Woods was winning Majors by record margins, so have never been scared of him, and may even look forward to the prospect of taking him down a peg or two further!
    - Wheras prior to a Major, one used to have to imagine Woods turning up, playing to his best (or even 75% of his best) and that alone being too good for the rest of the field, that is now not the case. For instace, for Woods to win this week would not ony require Woods to ply better than he has at an time in the last twelve months but for more favoured players- ntably Phil Mickeson- to have an off week. That's never been the case since 2000 at least.
    - The elements of his game that made Woods so dominant are simply not there anymore. In 2000, Woods was notable for the egth and accuracy of his driving, his majestc iron play, a great short game and a can't-miss puttig stroke. His problms in drivig accuracy are well documented, what gets less mention is that he's not, relatvely speaking, a big-hitter aymore either- Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson must have at least 20 yards on him. In the last few years prior to his 2008 US Open win it was his iron play that won his tournaments, but that seems to have dimnished as his confidence in his swing has gone. As for his putting- well they say that the first thing that goes when a player has past his peak.

    I'm not syaing he can't win Majors anymore- the planets may well align for him in the way they did for Jack in '86 (people forget that Seve and Greg Norman blew chances to win the Masters that year). But he'll never be the force he once was, and I doubt he'll win the four Majors he needs to draw level with Jack.

  • Comment number 6.

    At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I feel I have to defend Tiger against a couple of accusations here.

    Wehwalt - the main reason Tiger was roasting all competition for years was not that he was a superior athlete, it was that he was an outrageously talented, focused, and driven golfer.

    Enanjay - the main problem is not that the rest of the field are 'no longer scared of Tiger' as you can bet your life they would be petrified this Sunday if Tiger was tearing Augusta up again like the glory days.

    I agree with Ken on odds of around 50-50 of him surpassing Nicklaus. It just all comes down to whether he can rediscover the talent and focus, as I think the drive is definitely there.

  • Comment number 7.

    Oh, and Wehwalt - did you just compare the athleticism of Lee Westwood to Tiger Woods?!

  • Comment number 8.

    Lee Westwood and KJ Choi no less! Got to be a wind up.

    Why are people considering 35 old? Phil has won 50% of his majors, both at Augusta, after the age of 35, and his other two he was 33 and 34

  • Comment number 9.

    Remarkable talent yes, but remarkable sportsman never, for that you need the behaviour and good grace that sets sportsmen aside from the rest. Woods has been far from a remarkable sportsman, great talent, no question but lets not get sportsmanship and talent mixed up.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hank Haney has been getting some criticism recently and his response is very simple and to the point, 'There are opinions and there are facts, not everyone's opinion is correct, but facts are' He uses this to refer to Tigers win% when coached by him compared to other periods in Tigers career.

    Carrying on this fact view into his overall career so far, the facts are his record of wins over the past 15 years is incredible. Whether he is the best Golfer starts to go into the opinion space, but the wins stat is the fact and what a fact.

    It is my opinion, that this win ratio has stalled, but it's not finished. Far from it.

    In 10 years time, we'll be able to look back at the facts of 2011 to 2021, my opinion is there will be 5+ Major wins for Tiger in there.

  • Comment number 11.

    Woods greatest asset on course was his mental state, that ability to block out everything around him, even his previous shot. Whether or not he'll regain that I don't know - perhaps like Nicklaus he'll start winning again in his latter years when he's more relaxed.

    As for Tiger's swing change? oh I wouldn't worry about that affecting his game. One of the finest swings I ever saw was Nick Faldo right up until the point David Leadbetter started tampering. The change didn't do Faldo much harm!

  • Comment number 12.

    I remember watching the 1986 round. It would be interesting if that final victory is the one that ends up being the difference between the two of them.
    What comes through, having watched the highlights on the link provided (it brought all the memories back), is the enjoyment of both Jack and the crowd.
    Maybe that is what is different now. Tiger, for all his ability, doesn't seem to embrace the joy of the game as much as JN did.

  • Comment number 13.

    OK, Tiger is 33 - normally top golfers remain at or near their peak until their early 40s, and unless his body completely gives out (not impossible with the dodgy knees etc), he's got enough talent to be a threat in the big tournaments for the next decade (give or take).

    Whether he wins another 4 or 5 majors during that time will depend as much on his motivation and whether he gets the touch on and round the greens back.

    The one contrast between Tiger and Nicklaus is that Nicklaus has a deep and abiding love for the game, and that was hugely important in 86 when the crowds started to get behind the old warrior. I'm not convinced Tiger has the same feeling or that we will see him playing as a pensioner just happy to get the ball round in a respectable score in front of a lot of reminiscing spectators.

  • Comment number 14.

    If only Tiger could keep his pants on - if he gets back to the level he was at a few years ago I for one would consider it one hell of a comeback! Sadly, his aura seems to have dissipated and I can't see him dominating the field like days of old. Sad really

  • Comment number 15.

    I know one thing, Tiger was 13-1 on Betfair earlier today to win which he has not been for a long time!! I have had a gamble on him and suspect quite a few others may also recon he can deliver at that sort of price.

  • Comment number 16.

    I think Tiger is one of the most unfairly criticised sportsmen ever. Granted he made a huge mistake personally but Tykesaboard (comment no.10) to say that he was not a remarkable sportsman is wrong. Sportsmanship is about loving the game; playing by the rules of the game and respecting one's competitors. When has Tiger failed to do this. We are all aware that he is not the friendliest guy but he has been a gentleman as far as the game of golf is concerned. This is a man who alters viewing figures for golf like no other person or team in any other sport; he has broken records throughout his career and has inspired a generation of golfers out there. If Tiger quit golf today he'd be atleast in the top 3 golfers ever- no doubt about it. To throw him in the category of remarkable talent (instead of sportsman) is placing him with people like Sergio Garcia, Stewart Appleby or Monty who are unlucky not be major winners. Is that really fair?
    Undoubtedly though, even as a fan, I must admit Tiger is not looking like the man he once was. He swing just does not look right. At times he seems almost miserable out on the course. Once his troubles at home are resolved, and they will be eventually, I think Tiger can still make a very big impact on the game! Admittedly though 5 more majors is wishful thinking at this point.

  • Comment number 17.

    "Sportsmanship is about loving the game; playing by the rules of the game and respecting one's competitors. When has Tiger failed to do this?"

    How about spitting on the green during the dubai desert classic this year, hmm?

  • Comment number 18.

    Does anyone care anymore? Obviously from the comments above people do for different reasons but why don't we just focus on the golf and forget all the hype...the media builds people up then pulls them down and now we have the same media asking stupid questions about whether records can be beaten.....I'd be more than happy for Gentleman Jack to keep his record and leave it at that. Money and hype have destroyed most sports and golf is no longer immune..shame really..I think I'd rather play than be bothered to watch (a nice thought which will not be realised this year thanks to one R Murdoch and the incompetent BBC).

  • Comment number 19.

    for lovers of golf and sports some of the above comments sound like they have come out of the mouths of sensationalist journalism or very young fickle fans! tiger woulds has won 14 majors. he is in bad form. but he has been in bad form before when making swing changes. to say he wont win 5 out of the next 50 majors is a joke! are you guys for real? hes the most talented golfer ever... won 3 us amateurs, masters at 21, 14 majors at 33.
    for all us amateurs who play we will appreciate that he has the 2 most important attributes that seperate him from his peers - his putting ability and his mental strength. all this hype about "aura" is ridiculous. did tiger not deserve to win his 14 majors or were they merely handed to him on a plate because he magically made his opponents play poorly? when tiger woods was world number one 2 years ago his rating was 18 and the next player was down at 9. the same players are still lingering around 9.
    people have short term memories. detach yourself personally and be objective... people always write off champions... ironically often losers... eg sir alex ferguson, sachin tendulkar, muhammed ali, lance armstrong, steve redgrave... it is the ability to rise to the occasion and prove us wrong that makes them the great champions they are. maybe the great tiger wont win the masters, maybe he wont win a major this year but its just a matter of time!

  • Comment number 20.

    I agree with criclover25 - this guy knows his stuff! lets not lose objectivity folks - Tiger Woods is still one of a handful of sportsman who belong into the same category as the absolute greats (Maradona; Sampras; Ferguson (Sir)) - Can anyone remember the media wanting to rid of Manchester United of the Red Nosed One?! a couple of league titles and a champions league trophy later he still looks set for greatness with a mediocre team! again sensationalist journalism fell right on its face then and i feel that Tiger will answer his critics in the same way! he is still a revelation of talent and is young enough to develop the 2nd chapter of his career - almost like Ali where he made his return to the ring into 1971 after a forced exile during his (so called) peak years. As long as Wood's still wants it he can be the best once again. Listen to criclover25.

  • Comment number 21.

    After the scandal broke, and before he returned to the tour, I told anyone who would listen that Woods would never win a major again and I am even more convinced of that today. Westwood is more likely to win a major than Woods is to win another but I wouldn't bet on either.

    Woods' fall from grace is unparalleled in the history of sport, at least for someone of his stature, and I believe this is something that Woods is struggling to deal with. To watch him being interviewed has been a difficult experience over the last 12 months. At times, at least to me, he has looked like a broken man, unsure, even himself, if he has still got what it takes.

    Added to that, his game was already in decline, even before his transgressions became public, and had been since 2000. Having said that, his game was obviously still more than capable of winning him more majors but who knows whether the current swing changes he is implementing can be expected to be as productive, even allowing for an unaffected mental state, as his previous swing was.

    Furthermore, the competition has got better, much better. There are many more players playing a much higher level of golf than when Woods was regularly winning majors - I lost count of how many times a player threatened to shoot a sub-60 round last year. What is more, these players are younger than Woods, many significantly, and so the standard is only going to improve further.

    Most significantly though is the fact that the Woods 'aura' has gone, lost forever. Even if he were to win another major, never again will players stand on the first tee believing they are playing for second. What this is worth to a player is hard to quantify but it must be worth multiple shots per tournament.

    When all's said and done, the game moves on. Unfortunately for Woods he precipitated the changing of the guard with his off-course antics and I for one will not be losing any sleep knowing that the record for the most majors won will be remaining with Jack. I just regret not placing a bet that Woods would never win another major 12 months ago...

  • Comment number 22.

    Or maybe he just needs to start putting it about again...

  • Comment number 23.

    izrafel how many golf tournaments have you won? look at the stats...
    instead of being so subjective!

  • Comment number 24.

    I don't have the right to offer my opinion? Interesting. Maybe I will be wrong on this one but I happen to make my living from sports betting so I'm happy to stand by my post...

  • Comment number 25.

    Any tips on a real outsider Izrafel maybe e/w this weekend?

  • Comment number 26.

    My each way bets are Stricker, Poulter & Fisher. Too late to get on Fisher now though...

  • Comment number 27.

    Woods may win five more majors, but he will never match Nicklaus' majors record - 17 second places to Woods 7

    Nickalus will always be the greatest golfer the world will ever see, even if Woods does win more majors

    Oh, a far better man as well

  • Comment number 28.

    I love Tiger Woods

  • Comment number 29.

    Were you watching Tiger yesterday, Izrafel? Good luck with the betting career.

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.



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