Jack Nicklaus knows what Tiger Woods is going through, because age always wins

May 6, 2024

Jack Nicklaus chooses words carefully when speaking about Tiger Woods. When you’re No. 1 in majors won, like the Golden Bear, it’s a bad look, especially in a gentleman’s game, to even hint that No. 2 is anything but amazing.

So you talk up Tiger, even when he’s down. And he is down. At age 48 and worn through by injury, Woods no longer is a threat to win every tournament he enters. Or any tournament, period. At the Masters in April, he finished last among players who made the cut and looked old doing it.

Nicklaus knows the feeling. He turned 84 in January, but realized nearly 25 years ago that his days of contending in professional tournaments were over.

The Upper Arlington, Ohio, native, who famously won the 1986 Masters at age 46 to become the oldest winner of the green jacket, a title he still holds, was paired with Woods at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, which again hosts the major May 16-19. Jack was 60. Tiger 23.

Two days of watching Woods play a major championship he eventually won told Nicklaus everything he needed to know.

“When you can’t compete.” Nicklaus said, explaining when he knew it was time to stick to recreational golf. “I knew that I was getting to where I couldn’t compete (and) it was brought to me very abruptly, in 2000 at Valhalla when I played with Tiger. I got done with those two rounds and, ‘Man, you need to pass the baton. You can’t compete in this anymore.’ I had realized that before, but that was boom, right in the face. Thirty-six holes of playing with him and seeing how well he played, how he just dominated what was going on, I did that earlier. But I don’t do it now.”

Father Time remains undefeated

Aging always wins. Bodies break down. Hand-eye coordination deteriorates. But it’s not just about reflexes. Willingness to take risks on the golf course wanes. A 23-year-old slams a putt 7 feet past the cup and thinks no big deal. Just make the next one. A 45-year-old facing the same situation gulps.

Then there are the rigors of life that take their toll, even for millionaires who toil by hitting a little white ball. Family responsibilities increase. The passion for playing your sport 24/7 peters out.

It can be hard to stomach. It definitely is hard to watch, to be standing outside the ropes as legends slip into limping versions of their former selves. Jack has been there a while. Tiger is edging near the cliff.

Fans too young to remember Woods in his prime see the current version and shrug, the way I did when Arnold Palmer stopped winning tournaments in the 1970s. Arnie became an ambassador, which is another way of saying his game went to seed. Ditto for those who marveled at the power of Nicklaus, fluid swing of Bobby Jones or precision of Harry Vardon.

Watching Woods wobble his way along the sloped terrain at Augusta National, hobbled by multiple injuries and accidents, including a single-car crash that nearly cost him his right leg in 2021, was another reminder that greatness lasts only on video replay. Woods’ lower right leg, held together by stainless steel hardware, precludes him from entering tournaments that test his balance by requiring him to walk 8 miles of tees, fairways and greens. It’s one of the reasons it remains doubtful he will play the Memorial Tournament June 6-9 at Muirfield Village, where the rolling topography tests stamina and leg strength.

Is Tiger Woods on his last leg(s)?

“Tiger has the ability to still play, but obviously doesn’t play as well as he did, and I think a lot of his is physical ailments,” Nicklaus said. “But I watched him hit balls, and he hits the ball pretty well. It’s just trying to keep his body together.

“I don’t know if he can walk 72 holes. He can be competitive for at least two rounds, because that’s what he did at Augusta. … If he can be competitive in the third, then certainly he can be competitive in the fourth.”

That is one former great sticking up for another, as well as No. 1 being gracious toward No. 2.

At the height of their powers, the Bear and Tiger were beasts. Nicklaus struck such fear in many of his competitors that seeing his name appear on the tournament scoreboard was worth a stroke or two in his favor. He has 18 wins and 19 runners-up finishes in majors; imagine if he had turned even half of those seconds into firsts.

Woods was otherworldly. His torrid run from 2000-2001 is the greatest stretch of golf ever played. His 82 career PGA Tour wins ties Sam Snead atop the list of all-time greats. His 15 majors place him second behind Nicklaus. I like to say Tiger is the best to ever pick up a golf club; Nicklaus is the game’s greatest champion.

“Life passes on and you get old and can’t do the things you used to do,” Nicklaus said, reflecting on what was and is. “I just think golf is an amazing sport, and we have the ability to play and compete as long as we do. And find lightning in a bottle occasionally, like I did in ’86.”

And like Woods did in 2019.

Even if the body is weak, the mind remains willing. Woods refuses to fully accept his lot in golfing life, that he has become a long shot where once he was a sure shot.

And the competitive fire still burns in the Golden Bear, who this week made sure to mention that he could have made the cut at the 2005 British Open, at age 65, “but I just couldn’t make any putts the second round.”

Yes, the will to win remains strong.

I asked Jack, an avid fisherman, how much he wants to catch bigger fish than his buddies when out on the ocean. His list of fishing buddies, he pointed out, now includes Barbara, his wife. What she manages to reel in really gets his competitive juices flowing.

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus joke around while taking photos following Wednesday’s Memorial Tournament Legends Luncheon at the Ohio Union.

“She’s the one who catches all the big fish,” he said.

She landed a whopper almost 65 years ago. His name is Jack William Nicklaus. And over 18 holes, the Olden Bear can still beat golfers half his age.