June 8, 2009

Jack's 'great' Sense of Tiger's Comeback

Tiger Woods has a solid wingman in Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus presents Tiger Woods with the trophy after his one-stroke victory at the Memorial Tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Jack Nicklaus presents Tiger Woods with the trophy after his one-stroke victory at the Memorial Tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Tiger Woods hates making excuses. So as his game didn't come around as well as he'd hoped—chiefly because he didn't perform his best at the Masters—he felt trapped. He didn't like having a "Band-Aid swing" at Augusta, driving it shorter, making bogeys to end rounds, spraying tee shots and not getting it done on Sunday. But given that he prefers keeping people out of his business, along with holding to the old-school ethic of sucking it up, what could he say?

The standard "I'm human" doesn't cut it, not when everybody, probably including him, is too conditioned to superhuman. Saying the knee wasn't right wouldn't work, because he'd begun his comeback with assurances that it was finally stable and that he could now physically perform all the swing moves he and Hank Haney have long devoted themselves to. About all he could do was seethe, which he seemed to do a lot at Augusta, Quail Hollow and the Players.

Enter none other than Jack Nicklaus. Jack knows Tiger. Or at least he intuitively knows what it's like to be Tiger. And he watches closely. And he empathizes. And he knows what to say to give the guy a break, which is what he did at his press conference June 2 after being asked to assess Woods' comeback.

"If you look at his golf swing, I don't think he moves out of the way of the ball like he used to," said Nicklaus. "I think that's probably protective, and it's probably a good move on his part."

At his press conference shortly after, Woods was asked what he thought about what Nicklaus had said. And instead of giving the kind of non-answer he has mastered when asked about his progress, he suddenly opened up.

"Absolutely no doubt," he said almost eagerly. "Had to be that way. Worse thing you can do is stretch out the ligament that way. The surgery would have been all for naught."

Talk about having the ultimate wing man.

With just a simple call and response, Woods was out from under the weight of the notion that he was completely whole and better than ever. I confess to having had that expectation. Remember, Woods had been meticulous in his rehab, said he loved the way his swing felt, had been winning at the highest rate of his career before his break and was, after all, Tiger Woods. It was probably what Woods himself thought. Turns out it was wrong.

But given cover by Nicklaus, Woods could honestly admit that the comeback had turned out harder than he thought it would be, that he'd had to lower expectations and that the transplanted tendon in his left knee needed more TLC and was not to be trifled with. It became abruptly clear why he had lost distance, why he hadn't been able to practice as much as he would have liked after rounds and why, though he didn't say, he has avoided hitting the stinger.

The positive effect of fuller disclosure was immediate. Woods went out and played Muirfield Village in a wet skins game that was pretty miserable except for the wonder of seeing him and the 69-year-old Nicklaus play side by side. Then on a karmic stage of the 18th green of Jack's course, Woods holed a downhill 15-footer to force a playoff and then chipped in to win it, all with Nicklaus next to him nodding as if to say, "The force will be with you." And it certainly was. Woods regained his optimum playing demeanor at the Memorial, remaining serene all week, even after a maddening second-round 74. On Sunday he was Tiger again.

Liberated, Woods was expansive in victory. He revealed that even for him, achieving peak performance can be a mystery. "You can't put it all together just thinking about it," he said. "I was close to winning, but the game wasn't quite there when I needed it on Sunday. I rectified that."

It was the latest example of this symbiotic thing between Nicklaus and Woods. The younger man always responds when the Olden Bear offers his aid, as if it were part of a preordained rite. Also in play was Nicklaus' magnanimity. He may not be rooting for Woods to pass his 18 majors, but he's still rooting for him. It's simply in him to want the best from his fellow competitor.

At the trophy presentation, Nicklaus said, "I suspect that No. 15 will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks." Woods is well aware that the better he does, the more expectations increase, but he didn't wince at the reference to Bethpage. He knows Nicklaus doesn't do sabotage. And that he's usually uncannily right about Woods.