Questions to Nicklaus shift when it comes to Tiger
DUBLIN, Ohio — Jack Nicklaus gets asked more about Tiger Woods than he ever did about the golf ball.
The only difference is the nature of the question.
For the longest time, it used to be, "Do you think Tiger will break your record in the majors?" Now it has become, "What's wrong with Tiger?"
The answer is the same. Nicklaus really doesn't know.
Woods might not, either.
Nicklaus was in the broadcast booth at the Memorial on Saturday afternoon watching the highlights — really, the lowlights — of Woods posting a career-high 85 on a Muirfield Village course where he has won five times. There was a mixture of sympathy and surprise.
"I don't have an answer for it, an explanation," Nicklaus said. "I'm sure that he probably doesn't, either. I think he'll get it back, though. I still do. I think he's just too focused. He's too hard a worker and he's got such a great work ethic."
What did anyone expect Nicklaus to say?
It's not much different from all those years when Nicklaus was asked if Woods was going to break his record of 18 majors. Nicklaus kept saying he thought it would happen until one day he posed his own question back to the audience. Could they imagine what kind of headlines Nicklaus would create if he ever said anything else? It was a subtle suggestion to stop asking, not that it worked.
What caused the question to go away was Woods.
Can anyone remember the last time Nicklaus was asked whether his record in the majors was safe?
Woods hasn't won a major in seven years. He hasn't won anything in nearly two years. He has as many rounds in the 80s and the 60s this season. A world ranking of No. 181. Winning a major? Some younger players, unaware of the 10-year exemption for winning a U.S. Open, have been asking how Woods was exempt to Chambers Bay next week.
Nicklaus was asked about Woods during the telecast on the weekend. He was asked about him during a radio interview. Most awkward was Sunday morning, when the best players of each college division were honored with the Jack Nicklaus Award. They were sitting on a stage with Nicklaus when he was asked if he could ever relate to what Woods was facing, and the college kids also were asked to weigh in.
"I don't want to relate to it," Nicklaus said, "and I don't think they do, either."
Comparisons between Nicklaus and Woods are inevitable because their records are similar, and so Nicklaus was asked about his own little slump when he was the same age as Woods is now.
It was in 1979 when Nicklaus went through his first year without a win on the PGA Tour. He was 39. When the majors were over that year, Nicklaus said he might have touched his clubs three times the rest of the year. His short game was so appalling (sound familiar?) that Nicklaus said he putted around bunkers. His swing had become too vertical. So he stepped away.
Nicklaus went to longtime swing coach Jack Grout and effectively started over — the grip, the stance, the posture. Then he went to Phil Rodgers to work on his short game.
"It took me four or five months, but I got my game back," Nicklaus said. Indeed, he won two majors the following year at age 40.
And that's where the comparisons end.
Nicklaus only had one swing coach. Woods is on his fourth.
Woods has a vocabulary unfamiliar to Nicklaus. He talks about being "stuck between patterns." He spoke Monday about making "baseline shifts," which sounds more like tennis than the sport Woods dominated for so long.
He at least sounds committed to this new swing, though at 39 it would figure to take longer than the other changes. He hit so many balls after his opening two rounds at Memorial that he developed a blister outside his left forefinger.
Still, there's no getting around that 85.
"It felt a lot higher," Woods said.
He talks about being caught between old habits and a new swing. Fine. But he was stuck between old and new when he switched over to Sean Foley in 2010, and his off days were never this bad. Woods ended his third round with a quadruple bogey on the 18th for a 43 on the back nine. He shot 44 on the back nine in 2013, the year he won five times and was PGA Tour player of the year.
Strange game. Strange times. No good answers.
With 79 victories on the tour, and with 14 majors, and having gone through four swing changes already, Woods deserves a little more time before writing him off.
No matter how hard it is to watch.