Major players on same stage
Jack Nicklaus' record drives Tiger Woods but there's at least two men in his path, says Dermot Gilleece
Golf's big two are back in action with quite a few other useful practitioners this week, on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus, the original of the species. And there will be a sharp awareness from Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods that the Accenture Match Play in Tucson is no more than a pipe-opener for weightier assignments down the road.
Separated by a generation, these three have been thrown together by destiny, friendship and money. And between them, McIlroy, Woods and Nicklaus will be central to the Major tournament scene, probably for the foreseeable future.
Though it is 27 years since he won the last of his 18 Majors, the legacy of the game's greatest tactician continues to provide Woods with his golfing raison d'etre. Meanwhile, the Bear's relationship as friend and mentor to the present world No 1 evokes an image of McIlroy as a very willing sorcerer's apprentice.
When Woods made his competitive comeback in this event four years ago after serious knee surgery in June 2008, there were expectations of a Tucson clash with McIlroy, then having his professional debut on US soil. A shock second-round exit for Woods against Tim Clark, however, killed this fascinating prospect.
At that time, Shane Lowry was preparing himself for a final challenge in the West of Ireland Championship six weeks later. Now, as holder of the Portugal Masters title, he looks set for a first-round battle with Woods on Wednesday, when McIlroy is expected to face Fredrik Jacobson. Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell are unlikely to be sure of their opponents, however, until the draw is finalised tomorrow.
Looking at the stooped, ageing figure of Nicklaus these days, it must be difficult for the current generation to picture him as a powerful, physical presence in the game. But he was. In an upcoming television interview with David Feherty, he says: "Where I was five foot 11 and three-quarter inches in my prime, I don't think I'm quite five foot eight inches any more."
The lost four inches can be attributed largely to compressed and degenerative vertebrae. Yet leading American observers take the view that, physically, Nicklaus was better equipped than Woods for the long haul. Phil Rodgers once called his friend a Clydesdale compared to Woods' thoroughbred.
Durability was clearly in evidence in Nicklaus' recovery from a bout of polio at 13. And he subsequently dealt with cortisone injections in nine locations along his spine during his teenage years, followed by a further 24 cortisone injections into his left hip in 1963.
It is equally fascinating to note the Bear's financial reversals, long before the latest recession. In an interview with Golf Digest, he acknowledged losing several million dollars on two golf-course projects in 1985. And, as recently as 1998, there was a very costly attempt at making part of his business public.
"Those setbacks broke me or nearly broke me," he said. "All the money I have today has been built since 1998." But he added: "I'm fine. My golf design business has been a blessing for me. Crises are part of life. Everybody has to face them and it doesn't matter what the crisis is."
Such revelations become especially interesting in the context of McIlroy's contract with Nike, reported to be worth close to €200m over 10 years. And while Woods has had to cope with an expensive divorce, he remains hugely wealthy, even by the standards of sport's highest earners.
Though it's not unusual for dominant golfers to share common ground, the parallels linking McIlroy, Woods and Nicklaus remain fascinating as we look towards this season's Major championships. And the situation is embellished by McIlroy's status as the reigning PGA champion.
For a start, his eight-stroke victory at Kiawah Island last August beat the record margin set by Nicklaus in 1980 at Oak Hill. And when Woods captured the 2006 PGA at Medinah for his 12th Major title, his winning rate of one Major every 9.3 months, suggested he would equal the Bear's record of 18 as a 35-year-old at the 2011 Masters.
During that PGA week, incidentally, McIlroy was engaged in the more gentle pursuit of helping Ulster to a very comfortable victory in the Amateur Interprovincial Championship at Ballyliffin. In the process, he managed to avoid Lowry, morning and afternoon, in a crushing defeat of Leinster on the final day.
Nicklaus (pictured) always maintained that the remarkable Major run by Woods, including an unprecedented four-in-a-row in 2000-2001, was aided significantly by lack of competition. Johnny Miller agrees with him, claiming that the Bear in his day had to contend with "better Sunday players" in the likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Miller himself and Tom Watson. It is true that few rivals, if any, seemed prepared to go toe to toe with Woods at the peak of his powers. But not any more. And the supreme irony was that through reckless off-course behaviour he effectively became his own toughest opponent.
Meanwhile, Nicklaus remains immensely proud of his Major record, which is clearly very precious to him. And though the great man's sportsmanship cannot be questioned, he would be less than human if he didn't relish the notion of helping McIlroy to scupper Woods' further Major endeavours.
"Tiger has always had my record on his closet," he says in the Feherty interview, as if by way of justifying his desire to protect it in any way he can. For his part, McIlroy claims publicly to have his sights set this year on simply contending for the four Majors, but who knows what he is saying privately to his esteemed mentor. For his part, Woods seems ready to reclaim some old glory. Even with decidedly sloppy driving at Torrey Pines, he was an impressive winner of the Farmers Insurance Open last month. And the general
warmth of his recent attitude towards McIlroy suggests he has repaired much of the mental damage brought on himself through his notorious extramural activities.
Over the next 16 Majors, he will be returning to four venues where he has already been successful. Obviously the first of these is April's visit to Augusta National where he triumphed in 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005.
I believe Woods will win further Majors. The key question, however, is whether he can win sufficient of them to catch Nicklaus with McIlroy blocking his path. Then there was the emergence at Pebble Beach last weekend of Brandt Snedeker as a player of serious quality. We may certainly expect a very different Snedeker at Augusta this time around than the fumbling novice who finished third with a closing 77 in 2008.
Back in August 2006, when his Major count stood at 12 and all seemed well in Tiger's world, he still felt that emulating Nicklaus was "going to take a career." Now at 37, time remains very much on his side.
The really interesting bit will be how far a young Irishman can succeed in protecting the Bear's legacy. While imposing his own, long-term imprint on the game.