“I still think he can do it.”
It was nine days ago that 73-year-old Jack Nicklaus restated his long-held belief that Tiger Woods will break his career record of 18 major championship victories. As he often does when making a larger point, needling a friend, sending a message, Jack attached a Nicklaus-branded caveat.
He noted that the 37-year-old Woods hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open and that he’s still at 14 majors. Then he added the kicker: If Tiger is going to break his record, Nicklaus said, “He had better get with it.”
Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, a week after the Nicklaus nudge, Woods got with it. As if on cue, on steel-hard greens baked brown and crispy-quick, he put on a ball-striking, pitching, chipping and putting display that was nearly airtight, signaling a readiness to resume in earnest his pursuit of golf’s gold-standard record.
The top-to-bottom swing-change project Tiger embarked on some three years ago with instructor Sean Foley no longer is a work in process. It is, with just a few remaining brush strokes, imbued, incorporated, assimilated and owned.
Understated as usual, Woods nonetheless exuded confidence when discussing the state of his game.
“I’m just trying to get better,” he said. “It’s very simple. I feel like my game’s becoming more efficient, and it’s more consistent day in and day out, and I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made with Sean.”
Simple as that, as Nick Faldo used to say during his heyday when he won six majors in a nine-year span starting in 1987. When an elite player who has worked diligently on a swing change starts using the word “simple” to describe his game, it’s a sure sign he has progressed to playing with “unconscious competence” -- the fourth and highest stage of learning. While “unconscious” might seem a bit of a misnomer for a golfer, it means that the player simply executes the shot he envisions.
By whatever name -- the zone, Nirvana, Enlightenment or in the groove -- it’s a very good place to be when looking at a long iron to a tight pin into a 2-club wind.
In the grand scheme, this is what makes Woods’s 2-stroke win at the TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral more than just his 76th career win on the PGA TOUR, as significant as that it.
It was about more than his second win this season, his biggest victory since the ’09 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. It was more than moving within throat-clearing distance of No. 1 Rory McIlroy in the Official World Golf Ranking, and bigger than the fact he pulled to within six wins of the legendary Sam Snead, golf’s supple Iron Man who won a TOUR-record 82 times over four decades, posting his final win at the Greater Greensboro Open at age 53.
This was about finalizing preparations and reparations, about reinforcing Tiger’s belief in himself that he is ready, both in his game and his life. Now comes the real resumption of a lifelong quest that had been on hold for five long and arduous years. The Masters is on the horizon, Tiger Woods is back, and Jack Nicklaus is back in his sights.
Could there be a better spring, summer and fall forecast for professional golf?
Hardly. And fitting signs are everywhere. Steve Stricker, fellow competitor, one of Woods’ best friends and possibly the world’s best putter, had an appropriate role in Tiger’s recommencement.
Stricker gave Woods an unscheduled putting lesson early last week. Well, not so much a lesson as a reminder of things Woods already knew. But the contribution was important enough -- Woods’ total of just 100 putts over four days was a career low -- to earn Stricker a worldwide shout-out from a smiling Woods during NBC’s live broadcast of the trophy presentation.
When Stricker was later asked on Golf Channel whether he would send Tiger an invoice for the lesson, the affable man from Wisconsin -- who has two runner-up finishes and a tie for fifth this year -- cracked up.
“No, uh, no,” Stricker said, laughing. “It’s good to see him win, even though he clipped me by a couple, two or three shots. It’s always good for our TOUR and for us when he does well. He generates a lot for our sport. A lot of attention comes our way when he wins. So it’s all good.
“And he’s a friend. It’s good to see him playing well. He seems happy and his game is going in the right direction. He’s doing a lot of good things.”
And he appears poised to pursue Nicklaus in earnest. Doubters will persist but consider the landscape: At age 37 in March of his 17th TOUR season, Woods has 76 TOUR wins, including 14 majors; Nicklaus was 39 at the same stage of his career in 1979, with 67 TOUR wins, including 14 majors.
Going into his 17th Masters as a pro, Woods has won four Green Jackets; Nicklaus had won five Masters by his 14th Masters appearance as a pro. He did not win his record sixth until 1986, at age 46.
Comparing the competitors from different eras is always dicey. In 1979, Nicklaus no longer had to face Arnold Palmer, who was 49, but had to contend with the emerging Tom Watson, who by 1980 had already won four of his career total of eight majors; Seve Ballesteros, who in 1979 won his first of four majors; and the still-viable array including Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Johnny Miller, Billy Casper and Hale Irwin -- all Hall of Famers.
Suffice to say Woods is likely to face similarly stiff opposition from young major winners like Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Webb Simpson and Charl Schwartzel and will continue to have to fend off Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els for another few years.
It was riveting to watch Woods back in full flight in a Sunday performance that was, at turns, steadily controlled, spectacular and suffocating. He provided one of those rare two-way looks in a mirror: a reflection of what it was like when he was notching TOUR wins at roughly a one-in-three clip and a foretaste of things to come in the very near future at the Masters and beyond.
Perhaps the mental toughness they share is the singular trait that has made Nicklaus and Woods the two greatest players in the game’s history. Both love the cauldron of pressure that is Sunday in contention at big golf tournaments.
“You try to get the pressure on you,” Nicklaus once said. “You want the pressure on you. You play with it. You enjoy it, because it means you’re in contention. You have a chance to win.”
Woods’s take after Sunday’s win was eerily similar.
“I enjoy being there,” he said. “That's why I work my tail off, lift all those weights, hit all those balls and spend those countless hours out there -- to be in that position. That's why I prepare so hard, is to be there. I enjoy being there.”
He’s back there now, mentally and physically. Back in the same sentence with Jack, trying to overtake him. The next four months and the next four years should be epic.