PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLA. - The passage of time may very well prove that the greatest service Tiger Woods has provided for the game of golf was to make an entire generation - maybe two - that never saw Jack Nicklaus strike a golf ball in his prime aware of exactly how great the Golden Bear was. As remarkable as Woods has been in his career, he is still five majors short of breaking Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors. Jack is still the guy.
That chase by Woods has kept Jack's name in front of a Tiger-obsessed public that, in this instant gratification era, tends to forget those people who played before ESPN even existed. On Wednesday at PGA National, site of this week's Honda Classic, Nicklaus also displayed another way in which he is a champion: For more than an hour he fielded questions from the media on a wide range of subjects from the upcoming 25th anniversary of his victory in the 1986 Masters -- the last of his majors -- to whether Tiger will ever be Tiger again.
Perhaps it is generational, but Nicklaus is acutely aware that being a great champion involves a lot more than how you perform on the playing field. It includes interaction with fans, sponsors, officials and -- yes, even the media. It is all part of helping the game that has made you rich and famous. It is all about giving back. Jack on Tuesday was in major championship form.
"Is this for someone else," Nicklaus cracked as he walked into a packed interview room at the Honda, where he will play in the pro-am as part of his work to help drive up charitable contributions by the tournament. "I'm used to a press room now where we have only one guy." Then, after he was introduced with a summation of his remarkable career, Nicklaus said: "That was pretty exciting."
Among the highlights:
Jack thinks Tiger will most likely break his major-championship record but adds that we will have a much better idea of where that chase stands after this year, implying another major-less year by Woods will make the task that much harder.
Winning the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46 was a greater accomplishment than it would be today because current equipment is so forgiving it makes it easier for players to remain competitive longer. "No one expected me to be in contention, even me," Nicklaus said of '86. "Most of the others (major championships) I was expected to win."
As he tries to regain his form, Tiger faces the added obstacle now of an endless news cycle in which a story breaks on one day "and then Mike and Mike talk about it for four more. How long did they talk about Jay Cutler? And I'm not even sure what he did. He got hurt."
On Tiger's personal life: "Basically, I think he is a principled kid. Did he get off the track? Yes. We all do."
Jack, 71, says he now plays about once a month. "I'll play maybe 15 times this year," he said, "which means the National Golf Foundation considers me a golfer. But there is not much reason to play other than charity. Not a lot of good golf from a 90 mph swing speed."
And then there was my favorite moment. When asked if the final round at Augusta National in that 1986 Masters was burned into his memory, he asked for a clarification of the question. The reporter said, "For example, do you remember what you hit into 17?"
Without a pause, Nicklaus said: "Pitching wedge, 110 yards." Then he added: "Do I remember them all? No. I know I hit a 7 iron into 12, 3 into 13, 7 into 14, 5 into 16, pitching wedge into 17, 5 iron into 18. Outside of that I don't remember."
When the room stopped laughing, Nicklaus said: "You wouldn't know the difference anyway. I could tell you anything." But what we all knew was this: Jack Nicklaus never mailed in a performance on the golf course, and he also never mailed in any of his obligations off the course. On Tuesday, he reminded us once again exactly how great he was at the former and how great he remains at the latter.
-- Ron Sirak