Nicklaus saw what others missed

Tiger Woods, who turns 35 years old later this year, needs to win five major championships to pass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.
Tiger Woods, who turns 35 years old later this year, needs to win five major championships to pass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Jack Nicklaus had it right.

He saw it coming. Not the car crash, gal pals, text messages and subsequent marital ugliness, mind you. But having been there, done that, he knew that anything could infringe on invincibility. He knew that even golfing gods are people and that people, like putting greens, have undulations, ups and downs. And sometimes they're impossible to read.

We certainly didn't see it. We were too busy counting chickens and marveling at what was, not what might be, to remember the day-to-day grind and the toll that it takes. Heavy is the head and all that.

All along Nicklaus knew that, when it comes to the game of golf, where brain is on equal footing with brawn, there are things that can derail smooth sailing.

"I've always said you have to do it," said Nicklaus, offering simple and shrewd in the same breath. "It's not just a gimme. You've got to go do it."

He was talking, of course, about Tiger Woods, who not that long ago was the surest of sure things to surpass the Golden Bear's record of 18 career major championships. After all, we thought, what's a quartet of majors to the most dominant athlete of our time? Heck, we thought, what about a Tiger slam — all four in one year — a clean sweep. No reason to doubt that anything's doable. Not with this guy.

But, as we've been reminded, there are no sure things, not even for Woods, whose championship odometer is stuck on 14. Still. Woods hasn't added to his total since the 2008 U.S. Open, when, if memory serves, he only needed one good leg to edge Rocco Mediate in a playoff. We aren't used to straining our memories when the subject is Woods and winning. Now we have to think back, back, back to the good ol' days, before sponsors considered him a pariah, before he was the talk of the tabs.

Listening to Woods you would think there's zero correlation between his personal problems and his scorecard. How, Woods was asked, was a battered image likely to affect his week at St. Andrews, where the British Open began Thursday.

"It doesn't impact it at all," was the answer.

Woods probably believed he was immune to any sort of personal-professional intrusion, especially at St. Andrews, which the world's top player considers his favorite course after claiming the Claret Jug there in 2000 and 2005 by a combined 13 strokes.

Here we have an athlete who was trained by his father, a former Green Beret, to block out distraction. But there's a big difference between jingling keys, ill-timed camera clicks and the annihilation of a person's image and family life.

Woods has shown flashes of his former self, like a third- round 66 at the U.S. Open. Just as quickly he was out of contention, blaming mental mistakes. A strong mind used to be his biggest advantage. Surely Woods knows that golfers, even the best of them, historically don't win majors after the age of 40.

Woods shot a 67 in the first round of the British Open and a 73 on day two. As any gambler knows, anything can happen. And usually does.

Nicklaus knows that. Always has. Now we do, too.