Can Tiger Woods be a born-again Master?
Jack Nicklaus won the last of his 18 majors here in Augusta and, with tears in his eyes, he said it was something you can have only once in your lifetime. It came in 1986, when he was 46 and had gone six years without one of the big titles.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he added, “because you know it is so rare that you get back something you believed you had lost for ever. In a way, it is like being reborn.”
For this next week here amid the pines and the dogwood, where some still talk of that day when Nicklaus shook the world, one question dominates all others. Will Tiger Woods also be reborn? Will he reannounce himself as Nicklaus did so unforgettably in an unstoppable surge around Amen Corner and a final triumphant wave of his putter as he delivered the crucial birdie on the 17th hole?
Such a victory for the 37-year-old Woods might not push back the imagination of the golf world quite as profoundly as Nicklaus’s did because, for all the trauma of an unravelling life on and off the course over the last four years, he has already offered powerful evidence that he has found extremely substantial remnants of the game that once demolished all opposition.
With three tour victories gathered in this year, and his old No 1 ranking restored, the days of Tiger hunting and baiting might well be over.
However, another Green Jacket, coming eight years after he won his fourth and persuaded so many that it was only a question of time before he surpassed the Nicklaus mark, would indeed have an uncanny parallel with the achievement of the 73-year-old from Ohio.
It would also be a psychologically huge inroad into the buttress of the four extra major wins that Nicklaus still holds against the possibility that his only realistic challenger will one day take over his title as the greatest golfer the game has ever seen.
Nicklaus never dismissed the Tiger’s chances of remaking himself, not when the rest of golf could see only a shell of the player who came so close to redefining the game, but he admits now that it was at least in part an act of faith. “You always hope,” he says, “that a great player will find his game again but, of course, you can never be sure. It takes a massive effort and a complete rebuilding of self-belief.”
Such is the goal of Woods here and if he is mindful of his most talented opponent Rory McIlroy’s sometimes surreal ability to reinvent himself, if he remains haunted by failures of nerve and technique in so many of the majors he has played since his courageous US Open victory at Torrey Pines in 2008, he could hardly find more inspiration than in the last stand of Nicklaus.
The Golden Bear overcame all the years of angst – and initially an extreme case of irascibility. It came when he picked up The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and read the damning verdict of sportswriter Tom McCollister when he pointedly dismissed the great man as a serious contender, declaring: “He is done, washed up, through.”
Nicklaus recalls: “I kept thinking all week, ‘Through, washed up, huh? I sizzled for a while but then I said, ‘I’m not going to quit now, playing the way I’m playing. I’ve played too well, too long to let a shorter period of bad golf be my last’.”
How many times has the Tiger read that he too was “done, washed up, through” since he drove his car into a fire hydrant near his home on the night of Thanksgiving in 2009? Certainly, many more times than had Nicklaus when he felt the need to re-examine both his game and his commitment so ferociously. The ordeal was, however, not entirely novel for Nicklaus. When he won his last Open title at St Andrews in 1978 he was pushing back the first onset of doubt and some years later he explained the emotion that had overwhelmed him as he walked up to the 18th hole.
“I could not but help thinking of my father Charlie, who had done so much to help me when I was young. He was always at my side, always urging me on, and for some time I had felt I had let him down. He died in 1970 and I would have hated him to see me on some of my worst days. I realised I had come to take too much for granted. I was overweight, sometimes I felt weary just walking the golf course. It simply wasn’t good enough. I had to change and when I got hold of the Claret Jug again I said, ‘This is for you, Dad’.”
We do not quite know how many such regrets have swept through the Tiger in recent years but there was no doubt about the intensity of his relationship with his late father Earl, the old army man who drove him on so relentlessly.
If it should happen that Woods does find the kind of deliverance here over the next few days that Nicklaus achieved on the old Scottish course, it is not hard to imagine some reference to the man who underpinned so much of his early achievement. It is, after all, the kind of accountancy not uncommon when a great champion finds himself after being lost for quite some time.
Also certain is that a Tiger win would create the kind of historical perspective that comes to only the most dramatic achievements.
When Nicklaus shot his six-under-par 30 over the back nine here, when the acclamation poured into every corner of the course, few had any doubt about the significance of what they were seeing. The golf historian Herbert Warren Wind could hardly have been more emphatic, concluding: “Nicklaus’s achievement is nothing less than the most important accomplishment in golf since Bobby Jones’s Grand Slam in 1930.”
Author, and doyen of baseball writers, Thomas Boswell believed Nicklaus had stepped beyond the borders of his sport. He wrote: “Some things cannot happen because they are too improbable and too perfect. The US hockey team cannot beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. Jack Nicklaus cannot shoot 65 to win the Masters at age 46. Nothing else immediately comes to mind.”
With a little bit more reflection, Boswell might have gone back to 1974 when Muhammad Ali flew to Africa to, as he put it immodestly but with absolute accuracy, “overwhelm the imagination of the world” while outwitting the hugely favoured George Foreman. He might have recalled Pele winning his third World Cup 12 years after his first appearance in 1958 as a stunningly precocious teenager – and four years after he had been kicked out of the 1966 tournament.
Yet Boswell’s point is taken easily enough. Nicklaus created a moment in history, completed a resurrection that stunned all who saw it. It remains the most glowing evidence of a champion who found the will to regain all the ground that seemed to have been lost down the unforgiving years.
Here in Augusta we await, reasonably enough, another movement of the sporting earth.