Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

James Lawton: Golden Bear is inspiring for Woods

Tiger Woods and his wife Elin
Tiger Woods and his wife Elin

Those who see in the passing embarrassment of Tiger Woods the seeds of breakdown are likely to be extremely disappointed by the resulting harvest. At the very least they leave themselves open to the reminder that those who forget what happened yesterday are perhaps not the best judges of quite what tomorrow may bring.

Such a reflection certainly fuels the memory of a collision with another great golfer facing up to one of those moments of truth that come to every man whatever his business. He was 39 at the time and his name was Jack Nicklaus.

Tiger is 33-years-old, which given his superb general fitness and arguably unprecedented appetite for being the best golfer on earth means that it is entirely reasonable to believe he has a decade at least to overhaul his only rival for the title, the great Nicklaus.

Five more majors, or one every two years by that conservative estimation of his competitive life expectancy, is surely a target unlikely to be mislaid more than briefly in the distraction of what appears to be a little domestic turmoil that just happened to spill out into the driveway of a millionaire's cul-de-sac.

Some knee-jerk American satirists have been suggesting over the last few days that Nicklaus, as jealous of his reputation as any sportsman who ever made a run at immortal achievement, is fanning hope that the champion-of-champions elect is suddenly faltering. Don't believe it for an idle second. No-one knows better than the Golden Bear the terrain the Tiger currently occupies — or the forces that will drive him back to the heart of his ambition.

Nicklaus suffered two bouts of crisis, the first early in 1970 when the death of his father Charlie, a pharmacist in Dublin, Ohio, who in his way had been as strong an influence on his son as the late Earl Woods was on the Tiger, left a sudden and most urgent need for reappraisal.

The second came nine years later when, under the pressure of such brilliant challengers as Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nicklaus wondered if he would ever win again. He was six years older than the Tiger is today when he discussed his chances of finding, perhaps for one last time, the edge that had so often made him unbeatable in the tightest circumstances. He talked long and with some anguish as night fell on the practice range of the course he built in hometown Ohio.

As fireflies flitted in the twilight, he played a series of perfect chip shots, turned away and sighed, “You know, it drives me crazy that I can play shots like that but still not win a tournament.”

His last major triumph had come in the Open at St Andrews a year or so earlier and tears pricked his eyes when he recalled that to win in such a place was the last gift he couldn't give to the father who had built a driving range in the basement of the family home and tended the braziers which thawed out the frozen tees on the local course in the mid-West winter.

Nine years on, he was still plainly troubled by the fact that at the time of his father's death he had gone three years without winning his last major, his challengers were pressing in on him and he had ballooned in weight. “When my father I realised how much he had done for me, how much he had shaped my career, and I could hardly bear the thought of his going like that when I was far from my best. So I worked to get it back. I lost 20lbs. I fought to regain what I lost.

“Now, when time is running out, I feel the same need to make another statement about about who I am — and what I can achieve.”

His response to the first crisis brought a magnificent resurrection. In the year of his father's death, Nicklaus won his second Open and the first of his triumphs at St Andrews. Between then and his second victory on the Old Course he won seven more majors. But then in the gloaming in Ohio he wondered all over again if he had enjoyed the last of his glory. “One day you believe in your ability, the next it has disappeared. What can you do. You just have to fight because when the day comes when I go to the golf course without the belief that I can win, well, then it's over.”

Of course Nicklaus wasn't done. A few months after that soul-bearing he shot eight-under par to win his fourth US Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, a stunning return to the top of that was quickly confirmed by his 17th major title at the PGA. Four years later, at 46 he produced his emotional masterpiece, winning his sixth Masters title with an imperious march around Amen Corner.

Now Nicklaus will no doubt see in the difficulties of Woods the kind he passed through triumphantly, and also without the help of his father who had shaped so much of what he was. Looking back to the grief he felt in the winter of 1980, Nicklaus recalled, “I was playing good enough golf but it really wasn't a big deal to me one way or the other. And then my father passed away and I realised he had certainly lived his life through my golf and how I probably hadn't given him the best of that. So I sort of got myself back to work. Yeah, it was emotional time.”

Every man is different, of course, but certain types are no doubt closer than most others. Champions surely come into this category, and in golf few have been as driven as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. These last few days the link has perhaps never been closer.

One of them twice showed that he had the means to battle through the bleakest days that had come to him since the moment his father told him he could reach the stars.

Who would bet seriously again against the other to do precisely the same?

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