DUBLIN, Ohio – When Jack Nicklaus talks, the golf world listens. And they listen all the more when he talks about Tiger Woods. Because he can’t escape it.
Tiger wins the Masters, and Jack is asked his thoughts. Tiger needs one more PGA Tour victory to tie Sam Snead’s all-time mark, and Jack is asked about that, too. Oh, and of course, the old standby – can Tiger equal or pass Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships? Heck, Nicklaus has been fielding that question since before Woods turned pro, when he and Arnold Palmer played a practice round with Tiger at the 1995 Masters and the Golden Bear predicted that the youngster could one day win as many green jackets as he and Palmer combined.
That would be 10.
Woods is halfway there after winning his fifth Masters title last month, one fewer than Nicklaus owns. The stunning victory, coming 11 years after his last major title in the 2008 U.S. Open, ran Woods' major total to 15, three shy of Nicklaus.
The Golden Bear thinks major No. 16 isn’t too far behind. He likes Tiger’s chances in two weeks at the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by a record 15 strokes in 2000, and finished T-4 there in 2010 having only played in a smattering of events that year after a self-imposed sabbatical to deal with personal issues.
“I would consider him THE favorite; he won by 15 shots when he played there,” Nicklaus said Tuesday afternoon at Muirfield Village Golf Club, where he is hosting the 44th edition of the Memorial Tournament. “Sure. Absolutely. He loves it. Absolutely he should be the favorite.
“There could be a lot of other guys that you could call to be the favorite, too,” he continued, offering a hedge before anyone goes out and bets the ranch on the world No. 5 player. “Today we have so many good players on tour. We have more good players on tour today than we've ever had. And for Tiger to dominate them is difficult. He could beat them and should be a favorite or the favorite, yeah, but there are a lot of other guys that can still play pretty good.”
Nicklaus, 79, had figured that Woods might also play well in the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Bethpage Black, where Tiger won the 2002 U.S. Open, “although coming off a win as emotional as the Masters was for him, I think it's understandable, that that would happen,” he said, referring to the letdown that Woods experienced as he missed the cut. “I don't think he's going to let that happen again. I think that was a wake-up call again for him. And I expect him to play very well this week. I think he'll be play really well here, and I think he'll play well at Pebble.”
For more than an hour, Nicklaus was peppered with several other queries related to Woods. He fielded them all without hesitation. For as long as Woods is competing, Nicklaus will be a part of the conversation. And will be asked to add to it.
“No, I never mind talking about it,” he said. “But they stopped asking me for a while. I never thought that he would not chase my record some day. Who knows how long his body is going to stay together. You've had as many operations as he's had, he may be solid enough that it's all right. And if he is, I think he probably will break my record. But he's 43 years old, and when you get to be 43 years old and you start to get a little creak here and a little creak there, and all of a sudden, every day is not the same.
“He's going to have a lot more of those problems,” the Bear added. “We all have a lot of those problems. But if you manage them and you know how to take care of yourself, you know how to pace yourself, you can do that. And he's at the age where he needs … to pace himself. He can't just do everything everybody asks him to do. He's got to be a little selfish. And that's OK.”
A victory this week at Muirfield Village would give Woods his 82nd tour title, tying Sam Snead. When he captured the last of his five Memorial titles in 2012, it was his 73rd on tour. Which tied him with Jack Nicklaus.
Always a part of the conversation.