Tiger’s pursuit of Jack might feel like a relief

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the 2010 Masters

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the 2010 Masters

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Things will never be the same.

Not in corporate America, where Tiger Woods’ off-course issues have cost him more than half of his endorsement income – losses estimated as high as $50 million annually. Not with the media, which blithely accommodated Woods’ insistence on privacy and rarely asked him tough questions before there were a ton of tough questions to ask. Not with the public, which bought into portrayals of Tiger as the modern superhero and devoted family man, then discovered he was something entirely different.

What are we left with? For all the deception and altered perception, Woods still is one of the finest golfers ever.

From the very start, his playing career has been defined by outrageously high standards and the ultimate goal, an unreachable target for everyone else: Jack Nicklaus’ all-time mark of 18 major-championship victories. Nicklaus acknowledged Woods as a serious threat to his record even before young Eldrick turned pro, most notably after the two played a practice round with Arnold Palmer before the 1996 Masters.

“Arnold and I both agreed that you could take his (four) Masters and mine (six), add them together, and this kid should win more than that,” Nicklaus announced to a packed house at his pre-tournament news conference. There were gasps and murmurs, maybe a snicker or two, but when Woods established a 72-hole scoring record and won by a dozen shots at Augusta National the following April, there were no guffaws.

Just awe.

He has added 13 majors in the 12 years since, closing to within four of the Golden Bear despite a couple of 21⁄2-year stretches without one. Woods won his 10th major about five months before his 30th birthday, three years earlier than did Nicklaus, although the age gap has shrunk to the point where Tiger has to pick up a big trophy in 2010 to maintain a margin of any length.

That wouldn’t amount to much of a problem under normal circumstances, particularly with a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and a British Open at St. Andrews, but normal has left the planet, perhaps never to be seen again.

“It’s such an unprecedented situation,” said PGA Tour veteran Paul Goydos, pro golf’s lead philosopher. “We’ve never had a guy this good have to go through something this big. We’ve heard a lot of criticism about the way he’s handled everything, but I don’t know if there’s anything we can compare it to.”

photo

Jack Nicklaus watches his putt drop for a birdie on the 17th hole at Augusta National at the 1986 Masters.

How Woods deals with the off-course ramifications of his infidelity has become an industry in itself, a feeding frenzy with a buffet line made up largely of people drawn to his fame, not his brilliance as a golfer. How will the gigantic personal crisis affect his playing career? That is the more relevant question. For all he has lost – credibility, money, respect – Tiger still has his pursuit of the magic number and plenty of Mount Nicklaus yet to be scaled.

Maybe he returns more motivated than ever, his me-against-the-world mentality stoked by the notion that it is now justifiable.

“He has always carried himself like a guy with a chip on his shoulder, like he always has something to prove,” Kenny Perry said. “Guys like that are dangerous. They just get better.”

Lee Janzen isn’t as close to Woods as he once was, but he knows a guy in a bulletproof vest when he sees one.

“He’s been an overcomer all his life,” Janzen said. “The only way Tiger doesn’t catch Nicklaus is if his psyche takes a beating over this, and it doesn’t appear it has. No matter how much things hurt him, nothing affects his game.”

Then again, nothing has come close to hurting Woods as much as the mess he finds himself in. Nicklaus weighed in on the state of golf’s great chase while on a course-design trip to Morocco two weeks ago, and after admitting he was surprised Woods chose to begin his comeback at the Masters, he also said it was indicative of how important the record is to Tiger.

“It’s quite obvious to me his goals have not changed,” Nicklaus said. “His goal is to win more majors than I did. His chances of doing that are quite good, but it’s never a cinch because he’s still got to do it. You look at it and think five more is not that many, (but) you look at all the other players today and the most anybody has won is three, so he (still needs) almost two lifetime careers to break my record.”

So much for those 10 or 12 green jackets. Nicklaus might have been leaning on some flawed logic and interesting math in Morocco, but the man does have a point. In resuming his career at Augusta National, Woods will arrive having not won a Masters since 2005, the longest such streak of his career. The three phases of course changes overseen by former tournament chairman Hootie Johnson clearly have hurt Tiger’s bid to pile up more titles than Jack and Arnie combined.

The tighter fairways and tree plantings have transformed a shotmaker’s layout into a parkland venue, and with it, there is less emphasis on strategy, creativity and recovery. Hootie did Tiger no favors, but he’s still the favorite in every tournament he enters no matter how many fire hydrants he runs over, and next week will be no exception. Oddsmakers have assessed his chances of winning a fifth Masters in the 3-to-1 neighborhood.

Woods’ competitive tenacity is something everyone mentions when addressing the most anticipated comeback in golf history. To think he won’t be his same dominant self might be foolhardy, but there is a case to be made, and it’s not a flimsy one. You can start with Tiger’s major performances last summer: sloppy play at the U.S. Open on a course (Bethpage Black) where some figured he couldn’t lose, then a missed cut at the British, followed by the first blown 54-hole lead of his career, as Y.E. Yang outplayed Tiger down the stretch and laid claim to one of the decade’s most improbable victories.

Add the puzzling loss to Heath Slocum in the first FedEx Cup playoff event two weeks later. When we last saw Woods in a red shirt, he didn’t exactly look infallible. Knowing what we know now, is it possible his adulterous ways had gotten so out of control that it began to compromise his preparation and concentration? You certainly could argue dumber points. Being a better husband, meanwhile, will do little to eliminate the commotion that has become a constant in Tiger’s life.

“Whether you’re trying to keep your Tour card or win the Grand Slam, a distraction is a distraction,” is how Davis Love III put it.

“It’s hard for me to imagine this making him a better player,” Jim Furyk said. “It definitely could hurt. It’s much more difficult to play through a mental distraction than it is a physical (ailment).”

As for the theory that Woods will be operating with a clutter-free mind now that he has committed to cleaning up his act, Furyk doesn’t sound like he’s buying it. “I hadn’t heard someone make the point that he had a lot of distractions before, and now, his mind is clear. Most people are taking the other route.”

One of those people is Stewart Cink.

“I’m not sure he had a cluttered mind,” said the reigning British Open champion. “As he said when he gave his address (Feb. 19), he almost felt like he was above the rules of society. I’m not sure he was cluttered until all this came out – then it got real cluttered.”

No question, life between the ropes is about to change. The galleries at Augusta National are likely to be courteous and respectful of the game’s no-nonsense protocol, but beyond that, Woods is going to get razzed, and there might be times when it gets ugly. About two weeks after the automobile accident that set this entire saga in motion, elderly ladies at the Shark Shootout were seen holding signs that read, “I Slept With Tiger Woods.” The guy wasn’t playing in the tournament, nor is senior citizen-friendly southwest Florida known as the heckling capital of the western world.

Good thing the U.S. Open was held at Bethpage last June.

“The normal athlete wouldn’t be able to function – I’d be a basket case,” Joe Ogilvie said. “Tiger’s inability to control what will happen is a big consideration here. It could be tough for him, but I also think that when he wins a Masters or even something like Bay Hill, 90 percent of all this will go away. He still has the mega-watt smile. At the end of the day, he’s still the world’s best golfer.”

True, but the world’s best golfer is coming off what was a so-so year, at least for him. Woods’ last major title came in heroic fashion at the 2008 U.S. Open, when his competitive drive and mental toughness overcame a torn knee ligament, microfractures in his shin and Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole Monday playoff. The victory vaulted Tiger’s popularity to an unprecedented level, but after surgery and an eight-month layoff, he was uncharacteristically sloppy at the ’09 majors, then was beatenat Hazeltine by a guy whom many thought had no business standing on the same tee box as Tiger, especially on a Sunday afternoon.

photo

Tiger Woods after winning the 2002 Masters.

Is the knee still an issue?

“There have been a lot of guys with marital problems on the PGA Tour,” Ogilvie said. “What was a real red flag from the standpoint of chasing Nicklaus was when the knee doctor (Anthony Galea) came down from Canada. Tiger and (wife) Elin will either make up or go their separate ways, and he’ll go on with his career. But if his knee is shot, what is he, four from the record?”

Galea, who was the subject of a recent FBI investigation regarding his distribution of performance-enhancing drugs (Woods has not been implicated), visited Tiger’s home on four separate occasions early last year – right around the same time Woods returned to action at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. According to published reports, concern among those in the Woods camp about his slow recovery from surgery is the reason why Galea was summoned to provide platelet therapy.

Although Woods was asked about his knee repeatedly throughout the 2009 season, he never mentioned the treatment from Galea, whose trips to Florida first were reported by The New York Times in December.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of things we don’t know about Tiger. If passing Nicklaus has often seemed like an inevitability, Woods’ pursuit of golf’s grandest record will resume at Augusta National as one of those great unknowns.

“He went out in front of a live TV audience and did one of the hardest things he’ll ever do,” Janzen said. “When he does come back, being the best player in the world again may not seem so difficult.”

– John Hawkins is an award-winning freelance writer from Connecticut.

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