Woods' race to break Nicklaus' major record depends on wounded knee

tiger woods
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Tiger Woods suffered the latest injury to his left knee while attempting a shot from the pinestraw at the Masters.
By
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

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Jack Nicklaus doesn’t want Tiger Woods to break his record of 18 major championships.

But he wants him to be healthy enough to try.

Nicklaus told him as much last Friday when Woods called to say that for the second time in four years, he wouldn’t be able to play in the Memorial Tournament because of an injury to his left leg. Woods missed in 2008 while recovering from minor surgery to clean out cartilage damage in his left knee. This time the culprit is a combination of a minor knee sprain and his Achilles, which was bad enough to cause him to leave the Players Championship after only nine holes.

Woods hopes to play the U.S. Open. Trying to win majors starts with playing in them.

“I don’t know the extent of his injuries,” Nicklaus said Tuesday. “I told Tiger when I was on the phone with him -- which is the same thing I’ve said to him a thousand times -- ‘Tiger, nobody ever wants their records to be broken … but I certainly don’t want you not to be healthy and not have the opportunity to play to break records. I want you to get yourself healthy, do what you have to do to go play, get your golf game back in shape, and I wish you well.’

“I would say that to any athlete and anybody, because I think that’s the way it should be,” Nicklaus said. “But what his situation is, I don’t know any more than what I read.”

It wasn’t long ago when Woods appeared to be a lock not only to catch Nicklaus, but to break the most recognized record in golf.

He won his 14th major in the 2008 U.S. Open at age 32 -- Nicklaus was 35 when he won his 14th major -- and even after reconstructive surgery on his left knee, Woods went into the weekend of the 2009 PGA Championship with a four-shot lead. He was two rounds away from winning No. 15, with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews on the rotation the following year.

It all changed so quickly.

He lost the lead -- and the PGA Championship -- to Y.E. Yang. Then came Thanksgiving night and revelations of serial adultery, which led to divorce. He hired a new swing coach. He is in the middle of a slump that once seemed unfathomable. He has fallen out of the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time in 14 years.

And now there’s another injury that makes Woods seem a lot older than 35.

For all that has gone wrong with Woods during the last 18 months, his health might be the most troubling -- at least as it relates to his golf, and especially in context with Nicklaus.

Nicklaus won 70 times in 19 years on the PGA Tour before the first sign of an injury.

“Physically, I was pretty darned good,” he said.

Two weeks after he won the 1980 PGA Championship at Oak Hill for his 17th major, he had to withdraw from the final round of the World Series of Golf at Firestone with a bad back. About two years later, his back flared up again at the 1983 Masters and he had to withdraw early in the second round.

The first time he had surgery was in 1984, when he hurt his left knee while playing tennis.

“I went and had it operated on and I won the Skins Game 17 days later,” Nicklaus said. “So obviously, it wasn’t a very major operation.”

Woods already has had four surgeries on his left knee.

“I’m sure down the road it may be more difficult,” he said. “But hopefully, I’ll be in a cart by then on the Senior Tour. But between now and then, I should be pretty good.”

It’s that area between now and then that has become such a mystery.

Woods says the state of his left leg is not the “doomsday” he keeps reading and hearing about in the media. And don’t forget, it was only two months ago that he shot 31 on the front nine of the Masters to tie for the lead until his putter failed him on the back nine and he wound up in a tie for fourth.

Asked to handicap Woods’ chances of catching him now, Nicklaus could only offer, “I would have no clue.”

What amuses Nicklaus is talk that the chase is over, even if Woods doesn’t make it to Congressional in two weeks for the U.S. Open, or plays in the other two majors that follow this year.

“That’s ridiculous,” Nicklaus said. “You guys control that. By the time you get through writing somebody off, they may as well go sell their clubs. Tiger is hurt. He hasn’t been able to play. By the time you get done with him … there’s 400 golfers in front of him. You know what I’m saying. It gets pushed too far.”

Even if Woods were to go winless this year, he would still have the same number of majors that Nicklaus won at age 35. Nicklaus believes that a player in his era was “old” in his late 30s. These days, he thinks “old” is over the age of 45.

If that’s the case, Woods has some 40 majors still to play. But that depends on his health.

“That 18 is our benchmark in our sport,” Woods said last week. “No one has played the major championships better than Jack has. It took Jack over 24 years to do what he did. I still have plenty of time, and I feel that going forward, I’m excited about playing major championships and playing golf again.

“I just want to be healthy and solid,” he said. “And I feel like I can give it a go.”