By Dave Shedloski
“I thought we might get to that.”
Jack Nicklaus expelled a hearty laugh when he playfully chided a television reporter who waited for the obligatory niceties to pass before he asked golf’s 18-time major winner about the exploits of golf’s newly minted 15-time major winner.
Any conversation about golf is likely to include a mention of Tiger Woods, whose inspirational and inspired victory Sunday in the 83rd Masters has practically the whole world buzzing. Not just the golf world. Not just the sports world. Pretty much all corners of the globe.
Any conversation about golf with Nicklaus absolutely is going to include Tiger Woods. The Golden Bear, like most everyone else, was effusive in praising Woods not only for the quality of his golf that won him a fifth Masters title but also for his enduring optimism and his indefatigable work ethic.
But what most struck Nicklaus about a day that he could perhaps understand better than anyone—winning another major, another Masters, when few people thought it was attainable—was how thoroughly Tiger enjoyed the moment. Nicklaus saw the one-time boy wonder had become a man who appreciated the wonders of his life. He saw a man joyfully scoop up his children with the same enthusiasm Jack had done himself all throughout his life, most visibly at the 1973 PGA Championship at Canterbury, in Cleveland, when his son, Gary, raced onto the 18thgreen after the third round.
Contemplative and keenly perceptive, Nicklaus took it all in, and first and foremost understood what it meant for Woods as a person before ever addressing how important it was for Woods, the golfer.
“It’s great to see Tiger be happy,” Nicklaus said with genuine gladness in his voice. “He’s had a lot of unhappy times, some that he caused, I suppose, and some that happened. And I think he’s in a good place right now, and I think he’ll work to be in a better place. I was very happy for him, and I was proud of him.”
Nicklaus, 79, spoke to a small media gathering on Wednesday at the Ohio State University Student Union after hosting a luncheon that raised $1.4 million for Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The event is the implicit kickoff to preparations for the Memorial Tournament that begins May 30 at his Muirfield Village Golf Club.
Having called into the Golf Channel Sunday night, Nicklaus already has shared his observations on Woods’ epic victory that brought his PGA Tour total to 81, just one behind Sam Snead’s all-time mark. He already had mentioned sitting near Woods at the Masters Champions Dinner, as they regularly do, and that he thought Tiger looked confident and at ease. The change in the younger man was stark. Two years earlier, Woods morosely had told Nicklaus he was all but finished competitively, his chronic back injury too debilitating to even sit for any length of time.
The two men sit together in Augusta perhaps because they are tied together in history. Until injuries and personal problems conspired to derail him, Woods was coldly and efficiently dispatching the only challenge that mattered to him—surpassing the list of Nicklaus’ career accomplishments that he had hung in his bedroom.
They also are tied together in the way their lives have unfolded. A month earlier, golf’s two most accomplished men joined President Donald Trump for a round of golf at Trump National. Nicklaus watched Woods shoot “the easiest 64,” and figured he’d be a factor at Augusta. Woods’ daughter Sam plays on the same youth soccer team in Jupiter, Fla., with one of Nicklaus’ granddaughters. “I see Tiger out there,” he said. “I love seeing him there with his kids.”
It was appropriate as Nicklaus watched the final few holes of the Masters on Sunday— “I would have seen more except they played early, and the tide was just right to fish early so I only caught the last seven holes,” he said—that he saw in Woods’ performance traces of his own from 1986 when he captured his sixth green jacket at the age of 46. Mostly, it was there in tee shot at the par-3 16thwhen Woods nearly holed out with his 8-iron. Nicklaus had similarly scared the hole with a tee shot there 33 years earlier.
“It was exactly the same, except mine was a 5-iron, and he’s hitting 8,” Jack said, chuckling. “But yes, that came to my mind. And he even missed it on the same side that I did.”
Nicklaus, as he has done whenever he is asked about Woods, offered familiar observations about how Tiger is good for the game, how still no one moves the needle as he does. His re-emergence will only make his younger challengers that much more determined to beat him. Golf will benefit.
“What’s the saying? A rising tide raises all boats? He certainly is a rising tide, and he’s certainly going to raise the level of the game,” Nicklaus said. “That’s important to all the guys out there. They all want to see Tiger play well. Sure, they want to beat him, but that’s what it’s all about is the competition and beating someone at their best.”
Jack smiled broadly when he added, “Golf is in such a good place right now.”
Nicklaus always has been about what’s best for the game. Like his rival and friend Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus never tried to make himself bigger than the game, even when he was dominating it. He knows that Woods is a threat once again to break his majors record. He joked about “shaking in his shoes” over the thought, but he meant it as a light remark. He knows “the majors are in play again,” and that can only bring better and bigger headlines for a game that has endured months of unfavourable press.
He doesn’t want his record to be broken, but he doesn’t want Woods to not have a legitimate shot at surpassing it. He reiterated again how happy he is for Tiger.
“He’s been through a lot. He’s grown a lot,” Nicklaus said. “Kudos to him.”