PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Tiger Woods was long gone from PGA National when Jack Nicklaus settled into his seat in the NBC Sports tower.
Woods’ week at the Honda Classic included two lost balls, four shots in the water and 15 shots out of the bunkers. He made four double bogeys, was never better than 3-under par and was under par for only 26 out of the 72 holes he played.
None of this was enough to alarm Nicklaus.
In what now sounds like a broken record, Nicklaus maintains that records are made to be broken, including his gold standard of 18 professional majors.
“I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said Sunday. “Tiger’s talent, at 37 … it’s not that old. I won four after that. They were spread out. It wasn’t that difficult. I don’t think for Tiger to get four or five more – or six or seven – is that big a stretch.”
Woods has been stuck on 14 since winning the U.S. Open in a playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008. Perhaps of more interest than his 0-for-14 streak since then is that he has not seriously contended in a major since giving up a two-shot lead to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Sure, he was tied for the lead at the turn at the Masters two years ago, and he was in the next-to-last group at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open. But when was the last time Woods had a realistic chance in the final hour of a major?
Even during his previous two droughts in the majors (both 0-for-10) he had serious chances to win at Royal Birkdale in 1998 and Pinehurst in 1999, then at Hazeltine in 2002 and Royal St. George’s in 2003.
Woods will be among the favorites at the Masters Tournament, as he should be. It’s foolish to suggest 37 is old, even on a left knee that has gone through as many surgeries as Woods has won green jackets. Nonetheless, with age time seems to go faster.
Even after the road to 18 majors went over a cliff at the end of 2009 – and it took Woods two years to recover from the embarrassment of his infidelities, his injuries and yet another coaching change – Nicklaus stayed consistent in the belief that his own record will fall:
• “If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard,” Nicklaus said at the start of the 2010 season, alluding to a major rotation that included Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.
• “I’m surprised that he has not bounced back by now,” Nicklaus said in March 2011. “He’s got such a great work ethic. He’s so determined to do what he wants to do. … I still think he’ll break my record.”
• “I don’t know whether he’s going to continue to beat guys … whether these guys have all learned how to play or they all learned how to win, they’re probably no longer afraid of Tiger,” Nicklaus said in March 2012. “In my opinion, I still think Tiger will regain what he does. … Whether he breaks my record is another issue. I still think he will.”
It’s too early to make a conclusion about Woods’ 2013 season. One week at the Honda Classic is not much of a barometer, nor is one day at Dove Mountain for the Match Play Championship.
His game is good enough to win anywhere on any course. of Woods might not be what it was, but there were traces of it the way he rallied at the Memorial last year and dominated at Torrey Pines this year.
Still, it’s the inconsistency that keeps Woods from looking to be the threat he once was.
When Nicklaus was at about the same stage in his career, it was not unusual for him to miss the cut or have a bad week. But his results were never this up and down.
At age 37, the Golden Bear had 14 consecutive finishes in the top 10 on the PGA Tour.
You have to wonderwhether Woods has a different outlook at this stage in his career. No doubt he wants to win every time he plays, but perhaps his performance at regular events takes on less significance to him, as long as his game is sharp and he peaks for the majors.
And that can’t be measured until Augusta.