AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Jack Nicklaus was trying to remember the last time Tiger Woods won a major title.
Three and a half years ago?
Nope, longer than that.
“Really?” Nicklaus shot back incredulously, when told Woods’ last major victory was the 2008 U.S. Open. “I mean, it’s been a while. He’s going to have to figure it out.”
Woods comes into the Masters as the undisputed favorite. He’s back on top of the world rankings. He’s already won three times this year on the PGA Tour.
“He’s playing the best,” defending Masters champion Bubba Watson said. “He’s No. 1 in the world. That’s all you need to look at.”
Of course, everyone keeps looking at Woods’ more recent record in the events that really matter.
Since turning pro, he’s never gone this long without winning a major. His drought at Augusta — a tournament he’s won four times — stretches back to 2005, his longest winless stretch in any of the four biggest championships.
Which brings us back to Nicklaus, whose 18 major titles are more than any other golfer, who set the standard that Woods has been chasing most of his life.
When Woods hobbled to his 14th major title back in ’08, essentially winning on one good leg, it seemed certain he would take down Nicklaus’ mark.
Nothing could stop him.
Then, of course, his personal life fell apart and everything seemed to change.
Suddenly, Woods wasn’t this invincible machine. A new wave of young golfers, led by Rory McIlroy, arrived on the scene and didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by the Tiger mystique.
With each passing year, each year without adding a major title to his resume, it became a little tougher to envision Woods leaping over the lofty bar set by Nicklaus.
“Obviously, the older he gets and if he doesn’t win, it makes my record move out further,” the Golden Bear said Tuesday. “I still expect him to break my record. I think he’s just too talented, too driven, and too focused on that.”
But something to consider: Nicklaus won only four major titles after the age of 37, which Woods reached in December. Tiger needs five to break the mark, which, as Nicklaus pointed out, “is a pretty good career for most people.”
Considering Woods is almost always in contention at Augusta, even in the down times, and taking into account that he seems to have regained the form he had before injuries and scandalous revelations sent his career into a tailspin, this would seem to be a very important milestone on his road to redemption.
If Woods wins, suddenly, everyone will go back to projecting him breezing right on by Nicklaus’ record.
But, if he comes up short again, all the doubts are back on the table.
“If he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him,” Nicklaus said. “If he doesn’t figure it out here, after the spring he’s had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him.”
Around every corner at Augusta National is another reminder that Woods isn’t getting any younger.
He played a practice round with a teenager from China who wasn’t even born when Woods won his first Masters in 1997. He was introduced at his news conference Tuesday as playing the Masters for the 19th time, which caused Woods to bow his head and cover his eyes.
Among dozens of photographs on the walls of the club is one of Phil Mickelson helping Woods — with a much fuller head of hair — into the green jacket after Woods won his last Masters, eight long years ago.
“Obviously, I’m not real happy with the fact that I haven’t won more,” Woods conceded. “But the whole idea is to give myself opportunities. And as of right now, I’m tied for second on the all-time win list here. So that’s not too bad, either.”
Woods has changed his practice routine at this major. For years, he was known as a dew sweeper, playing his practice rounds at the crack of dawn. This week, he hasn’t shown up at the course until after lunch.
He played Monday afternoon with 14-year-old Guan Tianlang and Dustin Johnson. After his news conference, Woods headed to the practice range before playing nine holes with Fred Couples.
Asked about the change, Woods was coy, telling a reporter with whom he’s familiar, “Just wanted to mess with you.” He smiled, never giving an explanation, so that much hasn’t changed about Woods.
The biggest difference is his health and his game, which are connected.
There has been so much activity off the golf course — the extramarital affairs that ended his marriage, changing coaches to rebuild his swing for the fourth time, a move to South Florida to a mansion so large he has his own practice range in the backyard, a romance with Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn — that it was easy to overlook what he went through with his ailing left leg.
He finally turned a corner last year — winning three times on the PGA Tour — and getting back into contention at the majors.
“The No. 1 concern was first of all, get health, get strong enough where I can practice,” he said. “And once I started to be able to practice, things turned. And they turned quickly. I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game. I feel that I’ve improved, and I’ve gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that. That’s something that I’m proud of so far this year. And hopefully, I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.”
The wins are piling up, and they are impressive.
He led by as many as eight shots on the back nine at Torrey Pines. He was never seriously challenged over the final hour at Doral and Bay Hill, two more wins that marked the first time in 10 years he’s had three wins in a season coming into the Masters.
But he’s got plenty of competition:
— Mickelson came within a fraction of an inch from shooting 59 this year when he won the Phoenix Open, and while he’s a bit nervous about not playing the week before the Masters as he usually does, he can contend at Augusta even when he’s not on form. A win this year would give him as many green jackets as Woods.
— McIlroy, the golfer Woods supplanted at the top of the world rankings, is getting his game together at the right time, finishing second last week in the Texas Open.
— Watson knows only three golfers have won back-to-back Masters, but his power and creativity (who can forget that dazzling shot off the pine needles in last year’s playoff with Louis Oosthuizen) make him a threat to claim another green jacket.
Plus, there are plenty of talented golfers who have never won a major championship, from Luke Donald to Lee Westwood to Adam Scott. Surely, one of them is going to break through one of these days.
But everyone concedes that Woods is the man to beat.
Seems like old times, doesn’t it?
“He’s played very, very well this spring,” Nicklaus said. “If he wins here, I think it would be a very large step toward regaining the confidence.”