|Tiger reaches the 73-win mark 10 years and two days faster than Jack Nicklaus. (AP)|
DUBLIN, Ohio – Back and forth they went, sort of like an old married couple, teasing and ribbing and poking fun, inserting the needle, landing a few jabs dressed as jibes.
Sure, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus exchanged a handshake, a hug and a crystal trophy on Sunday night at Muirfield Village.
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But it was the good-natured smack talk of two guys at the pinnacle of their profession, two folks with the utmost familiarity and respect for one another, that truly defined the amazing moment, icing on the five-layer cake.
Sealed by one of the most memorable shots of his career, Woods won for the fifth time at Nicklaus’ hometown event, the Memorial Tournament, fittingly matching the Golden Bear’s career total of 73 PGA Tour victories in the process.
Nicklaus watched every shot. With Woods seated about a foot from his right elbow, the 72-year-old living legend smirked.
“Well, he had to rub it in my face right here, didn't he?” Nicklaus joked.
Couldn’t have been more appropriate, really.
Woods, 36, did it in a vintage manner that would have done Nicklaus proud, erasing a two-shot deficit over the final four holes by making three suffocating birdies. As Woods tapped in a nine-footer for a birdie on the 18th, Nicklaus was parked on a nearby folding chair like Papa Bear, stoically taking it all in.
The story has been oft-told: Woods famously grew up with a poster of Nicklaus staring down at him from his boyhood bedroom wall. Sunday, Nicklaus was watching over him as he delivered one of the most clutch closing stretches in his unparalleled career, too.
“It was nice to see Jack there,” Woods said after he walked off the 72nd hole. “He means a lot to all of us as players, and we all looked up to him, and he's the greatest champion that's ever lived.”
At some point, Tiger fans might take exception to that last part. Maybe even now.
Woods beat Nicklaus to the 73-win mark by exactly 10 years and two days, and if he plays as well as he did at Muirfield Village this week going forward, he’s going to catch Sam Snead -- who won 82 times to top the PGA Tour victory list -- in a matter of months.
No question, tee to green, it was that good.
Woods played nearly flawless golf Sunday, matching the low round of the day with a 5-under 67 and missing perhaps two shots all day. More impressively, he summoned up the old-school magic that fans hadn’t seen in months, if not years. Pressed to deliver as Rory Sabbatini stubbornly held the lead, Woods birdied Nos. 15, 16 and 18 to win for the fifth time at Muirfield.
Did we say summoned? More like conjured. It was pure old-school magic.
In fact, Nicklaus was practically drooling when describing the 50-foot flop shot that Woods holed on the tough 16th hole, an impossible recovery effort that will forever be replayed in Tiger’s career highlight reel. With Woods listening in rapt attention, Nicklaus detailed the shot’s numbing nuances to the letter.
“Under the circumstances -- the circumstances being Tiger has been struggling -- he found himself in a position in a tournament and it was either fish or cut bait,” Nicklaus said, looking at Woods. “Yes?”
“Uh-huh,” Woods nodded.
Taking nearly a full swing with a 60-degree wedge, Woods could have left the ball short of the green in the thick rough or bombed it over the green and into the adjoining pond. It was time to put up or shut up. Maybe even throw up. Hey, until his fever broke late Saturday night, Woods had been fighting a 102-degree temperature from a flu bug.
Woods deftly lobbed the shot straight up over the moon, and it tricked into the hole “like a two-foot putt,” as Nicklaus put it.
“He lands the ball exactly where it has to land,” Nicklaus said. “It doesn't make a difference whether it went in the hole or not. Going in the hole was a bonus. But what a shot. I don't think, under the circumstances, I've ever seen a better shot.”
Woods nodded as the Bear spoke. And nodded again. Then made it thrice. He seemed to particularly relish the last part.
“You had to hit a good shot just to get that within 10 feet,” playing partner Rickie Fowler said. “The rest is history.”
And hysteria. As the ball fell in the cup, Woods jumped sideways, looked like he was going to knock over Fowler and his caddie, then launched a vintage uppercut. If he’d gone any more nuts, he could have blown an Achilles.
“I don’t even know what I did,” Woods laughed.
For much of the week, it was about what he didn’t do. Had Woods putted the ball better earlier, he might have won by a bundle. But he had to grind it out Sunday, coming from four shots back -- the same margin he erased when he last won the Memorial in 2009 -- to sneak past the other contenders. It’s been a long while since Woods hit it better.
“It was good stuff,” said Woods, who moved to No. 4 in the world. “I didn’t really miss a golf shot today. When I needed it the most, it was there.”
Fittingly, Nicklaus was there to see it, camped in the broadcast booth for most of the round. Whether it was unintentional homage or not, when Woods knocked in the birdie on the 18th to ensure the victory, he slowly raised the putter overhead with his left hand as he walked toward the cup -- a signature Nicklaus move from the 1986 Masters.
That was Jack’s 73rd and final victory, so the silly symmetry was only … perfect.
Nicklaus knew Woods was going to blow past him at some point.
“If he's going to do it, which he was obviously going to,” Nicklaus said, “I'd like to see it happen here.”
It was a happening indeed.
Even by the highest standards of the game’s two greatest living players.