Jack Nicklaus says, if Tiger Woods' body holds up, 'He probably will break my record'
Golden Bear talks Big Cat, his past and his future at Muirfield Village
Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. You can hardly say one's name without the other these days, apparently. That has been the case for several years now, but in the aftermath of Tiger's 2019 Masters win, it has seemingly only increased.
Woods is, of course, playing the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village this week, which is both hosted by Nicklaus and has been won five times previously by Woods. So do you think Nicklaus was asked about Tiger's 15th major championship in his presser on Tuesday? Big Cat's first name was only mentioned 18 times over the course of the chat. The topic? What else.
"I suppose you could go back and relate it to what I did in '86," said Nicklaus of winning an 18th major at Augusta nearly 30 years ago. "[In] '86 I won because I found lightning in a bottle. And I really wasn't into the game of golf at that time, I was into it but it wasn't my main priority. I tried to prepare for the Masters, and I did, but I played golf because I just really enjoyed playing golf and being part of it.
"Tiger, on the other hand, he came back from injury. He came back, he worked hard to get himself back in shape to be able to play. He had to figure out what he had between the five inches between his ears. He had to get that solved to believe that he could do what he did. ... And he just had to believe it. And he did a very nice job of that. I was very proud of him. Very happy for him. And he just played the way a champion should play."
As for what lies ahead for the 43-year-old Woods, nobody really knows. Nicklaus' record of 18 majors is certainly still in play, but is it really in play? The Golden Bear says it is (because what else is he going to say). I think I might need a little more time to see what the emotional and mental fallout is from that Augusta victory.
"I've always felt like Tiger, before he won at Augusta, he has four championships, and he has another 10 years of major championships," Nicklaus said. "Another 40 major championships in front of him that he'll be playing. And people say, 'Well, he'll never win another one.' Still, you've heard me say this in the press room. Don't count him out. He won major championships hitting it all over the world off the tee. ... He never has driven it really well. He's driving the ball well now.
"So it's a huge, huge difference for him. And he's always been a great iron player, that's not going to change. He's always chipped well. He always putts well."
Sounds like things are adding up!
"Nobody wants their records broken," added Nicklaus. "I don't want him to break my records, but I don't want him not to be able to play and not be physically sound to play. I mean, if he's physically sound and it's his desire to win and he breaks it, you know, well done. That's what it should be. That's what sports is all about. And he's done a great job."
But ... there's always a but.
"Who knows how long his body is going to stay together," said Nicklaus. "You've had as many operations as he's had, he may be solid enough that it's all right. And if he is, I think he probably will break my record. But he's 43 years old, and when you get to be 43 years old and you start to get a little creak here and a little creak there, and all of a sudden every day is not the same."
This is true. And if you read this New York Times article during the PGA Championship on what back doctors think could happen with Woods, the general diagnosis for normal adults who have their spines fused together is not super promising.
Afterward, that segment of spine can no longer move -- it is rigid. As a result, forces get transmitted to the area above and below the fusion or, in cases like Woods's, where only the bottom disk is fused, to the disks above. Often, the disk or disks next to the fused one soon develop arthritis -- as quickly as within a few years.
"If you were one of Woods's competitors, you might say, 'I might wait a little bit,'" said Dr. Steven Atlas, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard.
Dr. Atlas said he tells patients that it is one thing for an athlete like Woods to have that operation -- it may be risky but he also might get a few more years out of his playing career, which could be worth millions of dollars.
But he cautions typical middle-aged patients. "Once they have that fusion, it can't be undone," Dr. Atlas said. "And it is likely that they will have future surgery down the road," as a consequence of the instability fusion causes.
Maybe Woods doesn't fit in that "typical middle-aged patient" category because of his fitness and his rehab work, but regardless, he has a finite number of swings left. And the back isn't the only issue.
"I played with Tiger, I don't know, before Augusta, and he played just fantastic," said Nicklaus. "But his neck was bothering him. And I'm sitting there, 'Really?' He shot 64 and everything was just perfect. But he said, 'I have a little problem with it.'
"He's going to have a lot more of those problems. We all have a lot of those problems. But if you manage them and you know how to take care of yourself, you know how to pace yourself, you can do that. And he's at the age where he needs ... to pace himself. He can't just do everything everybody asks him to do. He's got to be a little selfish. And that's okay."
It certainly is, and I think it's part of the reason you're going to see an even more reduced schedule from Woods in the coming seasons. He's going to do more skipping of Quail Hollow and less playing of Valspar to preserve his body for the four big ones every single year.
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