Thursday 22 March 2018

Tiger will struggle to get back in the swing -- Nicklaus

Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus laugh on the tee during the Memorial Skins Game at Muirfield Village last June
Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus laugh on the tee during the Memorial Skins Game at Muirfield Village last June

Karl MacGinty

JACK NICKLAUS joked yesterday that he finds golf on TV "as interesting as watching paint dry" -- but even the Golden Bear will feel compelled to tune into Tiger's comeback at next month's US Masters.

Though he believes Woods will one day surpass his record of 18 Major titles, Nicklaus is not so sure when it comes to Tiger's prospects of winning at Augusta National next month.

Preparations for today's first round of the Hassan II Trophy ground to a halt yesterday when Nicklaus walked onto the range at Royal Golf Dar El Salaam in the leafy suburbs of Moroccan capital Rabat.

Seasoned Tour professionals became fans once again, cramming the stand behind the practice tee to watch Nicklaus, now 70, hit a few shots (in loafers, no less), while many a tournament winner hung around afterwards for his autograph.

For example, Ireland's Damien McGrane asked Nicklaus to sign the palm of his golf glove, then beamed with delight when someone offered to take a picture of the two of them together.

Padraig Harrington might have met US president Barack Obama at the White House yesterday but Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn were prominent among those who shook the hand of the undisputed King of Golf.

Nicklaus and former European Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin were invited by King Hassan II to this week's first-staging of this august tournament as a full European Tour event -- and both expressed genuine surprise at Tiger's decision not to play a warm-up before Augusta.

Even in his prime, Nicklaus admitted he'd have been unable to go straight to the US Masters and win after a five month's absence.

"No, I'd not have been at my best," he said, delving back to 1986, the year he won his sixth and final Green Jacket, for an anecdote which illustrated why Woods will find it difficult to go all the way at Augusta next month.

"Seve (Ballesteros) went to that Masters not having played very much golf," Nicklaus explained. "I remember he and I were playing a practice round and he said to me 'I'm not as sharp as I should be'.


"As soon as he said it, I knew when Seve came down the stretch on Sunday, he wasn't going to be as tough as he'd usually be. When he hit his ball into the water at 15 in the final round, it was the type of swing you'd expect from somebody who wasn't sharp.

"And being sharp is being tournament tested on a recent basis. That'd be the only negativity for Tiger at Augusta -- he'd not be tournament tested, though as a golfer and having practised all the shots, he will be fine. So it's going to be very interesting."

Nicklaus said the decision to play the Masters shows Woods is as determined as ever to surpass his haul of 18 Majors -- and the Golden Bear reckons that the appalling train of events which turned Tiger's private life into a three-ringed circus and kept him off the golf course since November won't stop the world No 1 achieving this lifetime ambition.

"I look at Tiger as a golfer and his personal life is none of my business," Nicklaus insisted.

"I look at him as a terrific player and a phenomenal athlete. His focus is as a golfer and I doubt if his goals have changed.

"Coming back for the Masters makes that quite obvious to me. He still wants to win more Majors than I did and that's fine. It's not a cinch but he can do it.

"If he'd been out for the year, I'd have wondered but now he's decided to come back playing, I think his chances of winning five more Majors are quite good."

For the first time, Nicklaus will join Arnold Palmer as honorary starter at next month's Masters. The two legends will hit the first shots on Thursday morning, then head indoors for breakfast.

Asked what he'll say when he and Woods first meet at Augusta, Nicklaus grinned: "Hello Tiger -- how're you doing?"

Woods isn't the only man to carefully choose the time and place for his competitive comeback, albeit for an entirely different reason.

Paul McGinley has played 36 holes of golf (at Sunningdale last week) since undergoing a sixth operation on his left knee last November.

So the two flat, tree-lined courses at Rabat, the relaxed pace of a tournament played in a pro-am format and the fact he has performed well here before make this week a perfect choice for the Dubliner.

Darren Clarke, second only to Padraig Harrington here in 2007, relishes teeing it up with his dad Godfrey, an eight handicap, for the first time in a Tour event.

The sight of another member of the seven-strong Irish contingent, Shane Lowry, wearing waterproof leggings under the glaring Morocco sun once again yesterday suggested that his luggage was still lying in some shady corner of Madrid airport.

At least the Irish Open champion's clubs arrived intact.

Irish Independent

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