Elmer Smith | Loaded for Golden Bear

Surpassing Nicklaus giving boost to Tiger's speedy ascent

Posted: April 04, 2007

THEY ASKED Jack Nicklaus the inevitable question. He answered honestly.

"I'd be very surprised if he doesn't break my records," he said of Tiger Woods. "Very surprised."

You could call it high praise from the highest pinnacle. I call it the curse of the Golden Bear.

He's the invisible apparition who haunts every venue where Tiger Woods plays, the dangling carrot that remains just beyond Tiger's grasp, no matter how hard he runs.

If he lives and plays long enough and well enough, Woods will achieve what we all expect of him, maybe even all that he expects of himself. But it took 24 years of unabated excellence for Nicklaus to set that standard. Can Tiger run that long and that hard?

From the 1962 U.S. Open when he dethroned a king in a playoff with Arnold Palmer to the '86 Masters when he rounded out his winning wardrobe with a still-unprecedented sixth green jacket, Nicklaus ran up the score, winning 18 majors and a few dozen other titles.

Woods has to run like a man with his pants on fire to keep pace. If he makes it, his record in majors will still pale by comparison to Nicklaus'.

Woods might surpass his total wins in majors. But Nicklaus was runner-up in 19 other majors, losing several by a single stroke. He finished third nine times, to win, place or show an incredible 46 times.

It's a forced march to a distant goal. Ten years into it, Woods is still on course, winning more majors (12 to 9) than Nicklaus had at the same point. But Woods will still have to string together several years of great golf to reach him.

That's why Woods' single-minded pursuit of excellence has drawn such intense interest around the world. We don't know if he'll make it, but we have a long-term rooting interest in the outcome.

For the golfers who have to compete against him, not so much. If they were honest about it, most PGA pros would tell you they'd sooner be stuck in a pot bunker at St. Andrews than in a threesome with Tiger Woods.

It's not enough to have to hit a 1-inch ball 300 yards to the best position in a narrow fairway and have a chance to get on in two. It's not enough to have to match irons with a guy who dials in his second shots with the precision of a caliper.

They can live with that. They can even get used to the humbling experience of being mostly ignored by galleries as big as concert crowds that shuffle off to the next hole while their tee shots are in flight.

The real problem is that Tiger's foursomes are the only ones on the course with an extra man.

When the others are stalking Tiger, Tiger is stalking the Golden Bear. Nicklaus is what Tiger yearns to be, what some people prematurely believe him to be, the greatest golfer who ever lived.

"It's kind of interesting how two different people from two different eras who don't have much interaction can feel so close," Woods has said.

Woods doesn't have much interaction with golfers of any era. And Nicklaus has mostly kept his distance, preferring not to invite the inevitable comparisons.

But even he can get drawn into it at times. Asked to compare his iron play with Woods', who is the reigning master of the metals, Nicklaus took the bait.

There is "not a nickel's worth of difference" in the way he played his irons and the way Woods plays his today, Nicklaus said.

The comparisons have become a staple for golf commentators. By now, it's more a matter of when Woods will break the record than if he will. But armchair statisticians still record the numbers dutifully.

The main milestone, of course, is majors. Woods is six short of Nicklaus' mark. Woods isn't far from catching him in overall tournament play, winning 56 titles to Nicklaus' 73. Of course, Nicklaus played 27 years on the PGA Tour before becoming eligible for the Champions Tour. Woods is the only man since Ben Hogan to win three majors in a season (2000), the only man to have held all four major titles at once. In 2006, he became the only player to win multiple majors 2 years in a row in 80 years.

Throw in Woods' records for the biggest victory margins ever at the Masters (1997) and the U.S. Open (2000) and the biggest victory margin since 1913 in the British Open. He will still be damned by faint praise from those who say Nicklaus faced tougher competition with inferior equipment on less-manicured courses.

They will pit Nicklaus' brain against Tiger's brawn. Gary Player concedes that Tiger hits longer and putts better. But he quickly adds that Nicklaus "is the greatest mind the game has ever known."

So the competition that means most to Tiger for now is the race against the legend. It's not about titles or public acclaim and certainly not about money.

Other golfers can buy beachfront villas, put their kids through Stanford and fuel their Gulfstreams without winning a major. They can earn as much as CEOs with a win or two each year - and be happy with that.

But if Tiger wins three or four tournaments a year without winning a major, he's losing ground. If that happens 2 years in a row, the whispers start.

Maybe he won't make it, maybe he's just a very good golfer who wasn't good enough long enough to be mentioned in the same breath with Nicklaus.

He's facing the best talent ever assembled on the PGA Tour. Players from Europe and Asia as well as the best America has to offer get to size themselves up against Tiger Woods; on good days they will beat him.

Tiger Woods will never get to match scorecards with the player who stokes his competitive fires. Yet he 'll never be at rest until he overtakes him.

I call that the curse of the Golden Bear. *

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