PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA | There was a time when a Jack Nicklaus poster and a list of his 18 major championships adorned the boyhood bedroom wall of the skinny California kid who once idolized him. If Tiger Woods has outgrown that sort of infatuation with the man whose records he is still chasing, Nicklaus gave him plenty of good cause last week to resume adoring his childhood golfing hero.
During a spirited and typically illuminating 75-minute session in the Honda Classic media room the day before play began, Nicklaus made it very clear that he still believes Woods is eminently capable of surpassing his record. And he also offered several flattering, even sympathetic comments Woods probably hasn’t heard from someone of Nicklaus’s stature in the game for quite some time.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t bounced back by now,” Nicklaus said. “I haven’t seen him practice for a long time, but he’s got such a great work ethic. He’s so determined as to what he wants to do. I’m very surprised that he has not popped back. I still think he’ll break my record.”
Nicklaus also was effusive in his praise of Woods the man, not the golfer. He insisted that despite the ugly scandal that ended his marriage and subjected him to months of humiliation played out on a very public stage, Woods has plenty of redeeming qualities off the golf course.
“I have no idea what’s going through his head. I’m guessing that he’s moving into his new house (on Jupiter Island),” Nicklaus said. “And I guess (ex-wife) Elin has bought a place down in this (same) area. So even though they are not together, I think she still feels the stability of a father is important to her kids and to him. And I think he feels it’s important. I know he’s spending time with his kids. He maybe got off the track, but I think he’s really a principled kid. Did he have some wayward? Yes. But are we all perfect? No. I’m guessing that wouldn’t be happening if he isn’t still very principled about that kind of stuff.”
Perhaps more than any player on the planet, Nicklaus can obviously relate to Woods’ state of mind as he struggles to reverse his longest winless streak on the PGA Tour, going back to the 2008 U.S. Open. Nicklaus had to climb out of the abyss himself when he went the entire 1979 season without a victory for the first time. He ended that slide with a record breaking victory at the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, even if he went into that event still wondering about his own game.
“I wasn’t very happy going into the Open,” Nicklaus said. “But you just keep working at it and you keep doing things, and all of a sudden something happens that kicks in, and I think that will happen with Tiger. I don’t know whether it was going back to Baltusrol, a place where I had won before. I remember playing a practice round (in ’80) and I looked at the golf course and I said, ‘I broke the Open record on this golf course? Man this is a tough course.’ Well, I broke my record again.
“I didn’t think that when I went in there. And then I shot 63 in the first round and missed a little putt on the last hole for 62. All of a sudden, I said, ‘Hey, maybe this is my time to start doing it the right way again.’ And all of a sudden your mind turns around again … I think that will happen with Tiger. I think when you have as much talent as he has, that will happen. He’s not going to go anywhere. He’s won a lot of tournaments hitting it all over the world, but he still figured out a way to get the ball in the hole to win that golf tournament. He’ll do it again.”
He also believes that Woods can’t be doing anything all that radical as he works on yet another ballyhooed and much dissected swing change with his new coach, Sean Foley. But Nicklaus also admitted that when he made his own swing adjustments over the course of his career, he approached it quite differently than Woods and most of the game’s current players.
For one, he said his own long time coach, Jack Grout, never worked with him on the practice tee during a tournament.
“He came to a lot of golf tournaments,” he said, “but he taught me to be able to make my own changes, make my own adjustments, work on the things I needed to work on so I could concentrate and could understand how to play the game … A lot of times, the guys run back to their swing coach too much. I mean Bobby Jones sat with me when I was 19 in his cabin in Augusta and said ‘Jack, I had my seven lean years’ from the time he was 14 to 21. He said ‘I kept running back to Stewart Maiden’ and then he said ‘until I learned and he taught me how not to run back to him, when I did that, I became a better golfer.’ ”
Listening to your old hero, Tiger? Maybe not such a bad idea.