It didn’t look as though Tiger Woods was going to get beyond 14 after becoming a mess off the course for a spell and a physical wreck on it. But, having edged a bit closer to Nicklaus after ending an 11-year drought in the game’s biggest events with a fifth Masters win at the weekend, his quest to become golf’s greatest player is alive and kicking.
“I thought for a long time that he was going to win again,” admitted Nicklaus, who was bone finishing in the Bahamas as the event’s 83rd staging was unfolding yet was quick to heap praise on Woods after his one-shot win at the end of an incredible final round at Augusta National.
“I don’t ever pull against anybody. Nobody wants their record to be broken, but I certainly wouldn’t want Tiger to be hurt and not be able to do it and now he’s pretty healthy and playing well and I wish him well. The next two majors (the US PGA and the US Open) are at Bethpage, where he has won, and at Pebble Beach, where he has won.”
Woods had come into the season’s opening major feeling confident, even though it had been 2004 since he’d left with a Green Jacket. Winning the Tour Championship at Atlanta last September had given him massive self belief, especially as he beat the top 30 players on the PGA Tour last season to claim that victory.
On this occasion, he was helped, admittedly, by Francesco Molinari, the Open champion, letting slip a two-shot lead with just seven holes to play. It was vintage Woods, though, as he pounced when he got a sniff of victory in his nostrils, grabbing the outright lead for the first time with a birdie at the par-5 15th then sealing the deal effectively as he almost made a hole-in-one at the next hole.
“I was sitting there watching, saying he’s playing so much better than anybody else, he deserves to win,” added Nicklaus, a six-time Masters winner. “You watch how smart he played, how he used his head at 12 and put the ball in the middle of the green, how he hit the ball left of the pin on 13, hit the middle of the green on 14 and 15, hit to the right of the hole on 16 to use the slope. Every shot I saw him play was a smart shot and when you’ve got a guy who plays smart shots like that and plays them well he should be your winner.
“He understands who he is, he understands how to play the game, how to play smart; Tiger’s been a terrible driver the last few years, he drove the ball magnificent on Sunday. You just watched it all day long and thought this is a man possessed, he’s absolutely under total control and he’s going to get it done and he did.”
For many, it was the most memorable victory in this event since Nicklaus himself recorded the last of his title triumphs at the age of 46 in 1986. “The difference was that Tiger expected to be in contention, I didn’t really expect to be in position in 86 to win,” opined Nicklaus. “I got myself in position and, when I did, I remembered how to play. Tiger got himself in position and he knew how to play. He may have been part remembering, but guys that understand what to do and how to play remember what to do when they need to do it.
“I kept saying I think he will (win another major). It all depended on Tiger’s health. If Tiger is healthy I don’t think he needed to worry about his driver, he never hit the ball straight anyway. From somewhere he got it up around the green. Tiger is such a great putter, has such a great short game, such great distance control with his irons – best I’ve ever seen – and if you get a guy that can do that he’s going to win again. And he topped it off this week by driving the ball well with it. It was a very very special week for him.”
The victory came after he’d got himself in the mix in both the Open Championship at Carnoustie and US PGA Championship at Bellerive last year. After Sunday, it seems as though he’s definitely not finished yet in trying to reel in Nicklaus.
“We are watching a living, walking, breathing miracle to be able to play at that level with a fused back,” Paul Azinger, a former US Ryder Cup captain, told the Golf Channel’s Morning Drive as the world woke up to Woods being a reigning major champion once more.
“For all that Tiger has accomplished in his life– and it’s a lot – this story is as much about what he has overcome as anything.
“A couple of years ago, I think Tiger asked himself if he was in a good place and the answer was ‘no’. He’s like a Swiss army knife playing this tour. He can do it all, he can hit all the shots. He’s changed swings. He’s been injured like crazy. But it’s like, ‘I’ll pull out this blade’ or ‘I’ll try this swing today’.
“I always believed it (winning a major) was possible. I used to tweet once in a while and I’d always say, ‘naysayers beware’. There’s nothing better as a human being doing something that others say you can’t do and there’s a lot of experts out there who don’t know squat!
“I think golf is going to be a lot more interesting for a while now. He’s now going to courses where he’s won for the next two majors and I think it is set up for one of the most interesting seasons of all time - and I can’t wait.”
Woods, who was 1,199th in the world rankings, when he returned from his spinal fusion surgery in December 2017, is now up to sixth – the first time he’s been in the top since 2014. “He’s already the best player,” insisted Azinger in reply to being asked if a return to the top spot is now on the cards. “I think the No 1 player in the world right now is No 6. That’s the way I look at it. It is an amazing thing to watch.
“You can tell by the look on his face that he’s in a place that you would like to get to as an athlete. He’s in a mental zone where he can see thousands and thousands of people around him. But, when you are looking at him, it doesn’t look as though he sees anybody. He had that face on all week. I really felt he had gone out like a bottle rocket – that he’d gone. But that’s not what is happening at all and we are the lucky ones.”