Nicklaus, Norman put Tiger's quest in perspective

Tiger Woods tees off on the third hole during the pro-am at the Honda Classic.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Will Tiger Woods win again?

Five years ago, it would have seemed preposterous to pose such a question. Woods had just captured his 55th victory, at the Buick Invitational in late January 2007, and his career seemed to be on cruise control.

Starting in the fall of 1996, Woods had won multiple titles in nine of his first 11 seasons on Tour, and he was coming off an eight-victory season in 2006 that included trophies at the Open Championship, PGA Championship and WGC-American Express - all while dealing with the aftermath of the death of his father, Earl, in May.

Flash forward to the eve of the Honda Classic here, and the questions addressed by the greats of the game concern whether Woods can take on this emerging generation of PGA Tour stars.

“I don't know whether he's going to continue to beat the guys,” Jack Nicklaus said. “While he has been gone for, what, say 2 1/2 years, whether these guys who have all now learned how to play, all learned how to win, they're probably no longer afraid of Tiger.”

This isn’t a new thought, but when a player with 18 major championships and an icon in the sport says it, you have to take notice.

Nicklaus went on to say that he believes Tiger is too good not to win again and probably would break the Golden Bear's record of 18 majors, but you have to wonder.

“But he still has to go do it, and not only has to do it, he has to have more than any other career of any other guy that's playing today, win more majors than any guy playing,” Nicklaus said. “So that's a tough task. How many majors did I win past 36? I won four. I won one in '78, two in '80 and one in '86.”

When Nicklaus played, the overall field strength compared with today was not near as strong, but the top echelon - Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Gary Player - was prolific, just not as productive at Nicklaus.

Nicklaus thinks the PGA Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s was similar to his era, with Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson as Woods' main competition. With the layoff after Woods' 2009 auto accident and subsequent loss of proficiency, Woods has opened the door to many others.

“He didn't really have a lot of competition of guys that knew how to win prior to now,” Nicklaus conceded of the previous fields that Woods dominated.

Greg Norman, a former World No. 1 and two-time Open Championship winner, agreed with Nicklaus and broached the issue of age: of the emerging stars and of Woods.

“The hard thing from a player's perspective of the upper echelon when you've been there, your body has never betrayed you,” Norman said. “The older you get, the body is telling you, there's a few more ailments, a few more aches and pains, a tweak here, a tweak there.”

In turn, the younger players come along without so many physical issues.

“Obviously with the time lag of Tiger not being out there, these kids got more confident,” Norman said. “They are winning golf tournaments, and they are getting the flavor of what it was like to win on a regular basis.”

Nicklaus and Norman mentioned Woods' ability to intimidate opponents from the early 1990s through mid-2000s and how it has disappeared in the past three years.

“There's nothing wrong with that,” Norman said. “I admire a player who feels like he can go out and compete against a great player and feel he can win. That intimidation factor has been chipped away, and I think it's extremely healthy for the game of golf, too, that the young players feel they can be up there on a regular basis.”

So this week, Woods, who has relocated to nearby Jupiter, will make his first start as a professional at PGA National Resort's Champion Course. It is not a course that many Tour observers thought he would ever play, but at the same time his need for starts forces the issue.

At the same time, with the exception of last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play, in which Woods lost in the second round, this will be the strongest field he will meet before the Masters. So the test is important, and his progress will be well documented. Unless Woods can win, the question of 'Will Tiger Woods win again?' will recur next week at Doral.

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