To my wife, I said: When Tiger Woods comes to the Masters in 2022 at the age of 46, he will never have a moment like Jack Nicklaus did in 1986 — his son carrying his bag, everybody cheering, many in tears, including himself. Tiger has lost that chance.
My wife said to me: What is the matter with everybody? Tiger knows better than anybody every single thing that he has lost and that he’ll never get back. But everybody feels like it’s their job to remind him. We all have problems. He’s in therapy. Good. Child prodigy. Driven parents. Act perfect. Never rebel. Live in a golf bubble. Black star, white sport. That’s not a great way to grow up. I hope he gets his game back.
Then Nicklaus showed for the 25th anniversary and said much the same thing: “I feel bad for Tiger. I feel bad for his family. I feel bad that he got himself in that position. I think that we’re taught to have forgiveness, and I wish him well. I hope he gets his game back. And I hope he comes back and plays well.”
Nicklaus has never been anything if not literal. So the implication is he expects his record of 18 major titles to fall. Of course, Nicklaus also notes that five more majors is a whole bunch. “That would be a great [entire] career for anybody else,” he said.
Yet it’s also Nicklaus who makes the persuasive case for why Woods should relax because he has many years to catch him. The ultra-long golf career is becoming more common. New equipment allows 300-yard drives for old-timers. Add better conditioning. Recent examples will inspire others — such as the near-misses in 2009 by Kenny Perry, then 48, at the Masters and Tom Watson, then 59, at the British Open. Nicklaus says “it’s silly” to think Vijay Singh, 48, or Fred Couples, 51, couldn’t contend here this week.
The impatience to decide whether Woods can pass Nicklaus now borders on comical. The debate about whether Woods is foolish to switch swing coaches — again — and tear down his game to its foundation at age 35 might miss the larger point.
First, Woods has time — and a great deal of it — on his side. Second, as he has made clearer than ever here this week, his radical changes are more necessity than obsession.
An excellent analysis in Golf Digest of Woods’s four swings with four teachers, including his teenage swing, shows (to me, at least) that his 2000 Tiger Slam swing with Butch Harmon was probably the purest and best by far. Why ever change? He had to.
“I can’t swing that way” any more, Woods said this week. “I took a pretty good pounding on my [left] knee doing it that way. As you know, I tore cartilage and my ACL over the years, so I don’t want to swing that way. It’s too much pain.”
Woods isn’t quixotically searching for some mythical perfect swing. He knew what he had; thus, he knows better than anyone what he lost and can’t ever have back.
“I don’t hit driver-wedge to No. 15 anymore. Actually, sometimes out of the trees, I hit wedge out,” Woods said.
The Masters interview room is like the psychiatrist’s couch of golf. They spill their guts every year. Woods, too. Asked if, after finishing fourth here last April, he was surprised his game could fall so far, he actually agreed.
“No doubt,” he said. “I didn’t think I would have to make a complete swing change, lose coaches and move on to another one.”
So after fabulous runs with both Harmon and Hank Haney, Woods has moved to Sean Foley, and like the previous times, the changes are more tear-down than remodel.
“It’s just a totally different philosophy,” Woods said. “We’ve changed a lot from grip to where the club is, where he believes the club needs to be throughout the entire swing.”
For the record, Tiger refused to stand on his head and swing upside down.
The makeover may work. But it sure hasn’t yet. The cover of the New Yorker has a player who looks like Woods hitting a recovery shot from 20 feet up in a tree. Ian Poulter dared to say he couldn’t envision Woods even finishing in the top five here.
“Well, Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods retorted.
Asked if he could provide a Twitter message for Poulter, Woods said, “I think I already did, didn’t I? That was less than 142 [characters], wasn’t it?”
Those now piling on Woods should remember that, in ’86, Nicklaus was more lost than Woods has ever been — two wins in six years, friends suggesting he retire. But in two weeks, he got a swing tip (Jack Grout), changed his chipping (son Jackie) and got a big new ugly putter.
The result: All week we’ll see replays of the last 10 holes with the loudest noise I’ve ever heard at an outdoor event. You didn’t get goose bumps. You stayed goose-bumped.
Lightning can strike a Nicklaus or a Woods and, in a few days, put him in touch with his long-lost best self for a week. Woods may have as many as 20 more years when that bolt can strike — even if he never rebuilds his swing to his former level.
But if he and Foley click, something we may not know for a year or more, Woods may reclaim something akin to his old A Game.
Those who want to prod the Tiger should have their fun now. Kick while you can. Woods will find his game, or a facsimile of it, someday. After all, he’s probably got 15 years to conduct the search.
And if he has a day, at 46 or even later, when he walks the back nine with a chance to pass Nicklaus’s record, you’ll be cheering. You may not think so now, but by then, you may even have to dab a damp eye.