DUBLIN, Ohio — As he trudged up the steep hill from the ninth green to the 10th tee at Muirfield Village Golf Club Wednesday morning, Tiger Woods locked eyes with the familiar, smiling visage of Memorial Tournament founder and host Jack Nicklaus.
The two golf titans hugged and chatted. And then Jack’s wife, Barbara, stepped in and embraced the reigning Masters champion, congratulating him on his 15th major title. It was one of those moments you wish to freeze in time. It was happy and emotional and poignant. Living history.
“I’ve been playing here for a long time,” said Woods, who has won the Memorial a record five times and will make his 17th start in Nicklaus’ event come 8:26 a.m. Thursday. “I've won Jack's event a few times. It's been very special to see him out here today. I haven't seen him since the Tuesday night dinner at Augusta. So it was great to catch up a bit.”
Obviously, he caught up a bit on the major championship scoreboard, too. Woods, with his fifth Masters win, is only three shy of Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. The Golden Bear on Tuesday deigned to designate Woods as the favorite in two weeks at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where each man has won a U.S. Open, Nicklaus in 1972 and Tiger by a record 15 strokes in 2000.
First, though, there is the Memorial, an event Woods, 43, would like to win again, and not just because he could tie Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour record of 82 victories.
“There’s nothing better than shaking Jack’s hand as you come off the green as a champion,” Woods said respectfully. “I’ve been lucky enough to have won three events where three legends of the game hosted the event. Whether it’s Jack’s, Arnold [Palmer]’s or Byron Nelson’s, to shake their hand as I walk off as a champion is such a surreal feeling because these are the people I’ve looked up to, these are people I’ve tried to emulate my game after. I’ve gotten a chance to talk to all three of them a lot in the past years. Unfortunately two of them have passed away, but I’ve had a lot of dinners and talks with them. They’ve helped me out with my life and my game, and Jack’s still around to pick his brain and listen to his words of encouragement—or the needle—and it’s been fantastic.”
Woods appeared energetic and eager to compete after his disappointing performance in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in New York two weeks ago, where he missed the cut by a stroke. He was hampered in the PGA by an illness that caused him to lose a bit of weight and limited his preparation to just nine holes.
“I feel a lot better. I feel a lot better,” he said, repeating the words for emphasis. “I just need to play a little bit more now. And hopefully it will be four solid days this week heading into the [U.S.] Open.
“This golf course is not set up easy this week. It’s going to be tough to play,” he added, referring to the Nicklaus-designed layout. “This one is going to require a lot of good driving. It's going to be soft. Guys are going to be aggressive. The ball is not going to be going anywhere. We'll see if we play it up the first couple of days.”
Last week Woods visited Pebble Beach before he hosted his charity event in Las Vegas. The highlight was the latter. “We were able to raise a lot of money. We had a great time,” he said. “Janet Jackson played, and Russell Westbrook knocked me out of a poker tournament, which I’m still a little ticked off about. It was an amazing time. I don’t ever get nervous before speaking, but to have to introduce Janet Jackson was something else. That’s a person I’ve always watched, admired and looked up to, so to be able to introduce her was one of the more special moments I’ve ever had.”
As for Pebble Beach, Woods was able to reacquaint himself with a layout where he also has won a regular tour event when he visited last week on a scouting trip. It wasn’t U.S. Open ready, to say the least.
“Pebble was wet, rainy and cold when we played. So, it was playing really, really long, but obviously, it will be a little bit different come tournament time,” he noted. “The rough is not quite up yet. It's a little bit short for now. They've got another few more weeks to grow it in. The greens are—I forgot, I haven't played there in a number of years, I forgot how small the complexes are. Add a little firmness and speed to them, they get really tight.
“But seeing some of the new greens that they had redone, taking a look at the new pins was nice to see. So come next week, when I start concentrating and focusing on Pebble Beach, it will be nice to have those images.”
When he walked off the 18th green Wednesday, the last image Woods had was watching former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning sink a birdie putt. They high-fived. Another moment to savor. Manning, who won two Super Bowls, has some insight into the comeback Woods has orchestrated culminating in his Masters triumph, pulling off a comeback of his own from a career-threatening neck injury.
“I don't think anybody can speak for what he went through from a physical standpoint injury-wise,” said Manning, who was partnered with Woods for the second year in a row. “Only you know what it feels like. I only know how hard he worked. I know he had to stop playing for a while. I had to stop throwing at one point. I didn't like seeing the way I was throwing. I had to stop and restart and I think that's sort of what he did.
“I think the most impressive thing is how he's been able to adjust and be adaptive to playing in a new physical state,” Manning continued. “That's kind of what I did. Maybe use the baseball analogy; I couldn't throw the 100-mile-an-hour fastball anymore, but you could still work the outside edges of the plate and you could still strike a guy out that way. He struck a lot of guys out a few weeks ago down there at Augusta and came home with the win. That to me is the most impressive thing, is how adaptive he's been. And as a golf fan, it was great watching him that Sunday.”
Living history. And more could be on the horizon. And soon.