James Lawton: Nicklaus knows Tiger can still claim his crown

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The Independent Online

When Jack Nicklaus finally came down from the mountain top – as he has somewhat reluctantly this week to fire off ceremonially the opening drive of what is normally known as the US Masters – he was never going to waylay the trial of Tiger Woods with too much easy sentiment.

For Nicklaus golf has always been a hard and practical business, ever since he invaded the territory of the man with whom he shares the honours this morning, Arnold Palmer, and one of "Arnie's Army" stood in the long grass and hoisted a sign which read "Over here, Fat Boy". At 70 he hasn't softened by any striking degree.

He proved this here with his casual admission that the only way he will attend the Open at St Andrews – one of the pivotal places in a career whose uniqueness now rests on the ability of the Tiger to remake himself over the next year or so – and play in its pre-tournament festival of champions is if his sponsor, the Royal Bank of Scotland, makes it financially worthwhile.

Not exactly a position to moisten the eyes of traditionalists, you might say, but it was when he discussed the possibilities of the Tiger and his chances of one day engulfing his total of 18 major titles that the cutting teeth of the Golden Bear gleamed most ferociously.

He dismissed, with some contempt, the suggestions that Woods no longer sees the winning of five more majors – and the passing of Nicklaus's record – as one of the central purposes of his life.

Nicklaus frowned deeply and said: "Well, of course he still wants it. Why do you think he's here? I mean, I don't think he's here for his health or anything. He's here to play golf. I mean, that's what he is. He's a very good golfer. It's the first major of the year. He's taking large steps to get his life back in order, and he wants to play golf. He's excited about wanting to play and I think that's great for him and I think that's great for the game."

You might have noticed a little finessing in that last sentence for the sake, perhaps, of the Tiger's finer feelings but twice Nicklaus set his jaw and firmly refused to comment on his challenger's apology to fellow players for the distractions his crisis has created in their preparations for this tournament – and his resolve to improve his manners on the course. "I think I'll stay away from those matters," he said tersely.

His sharpest scorn, though, is reserved for the idea that in the course of rebuilding his life Woods will jettison the huge motivation that has brought him so close to the historic mark drawn here by Nicklaus as a 46-year-old, stunning golf with his sixth Masters title.

Nicklaus rasped in his high, strangely brittle voice: "Do I think he is not gunning for those major titles? No, come on, give me a break."

What he does believe, though, is that if Woods fails to land his 15th major this season, if he cannot exploit courses like the one here, St Andrews and the US Open venue Pebble Beach, which have always provoked the best of his game, his own record will suddenly look like something set rather longer into the future.

"I've always thought that Tiger would play this year. If he didn't, well, the record would be that much harder to gain. Another year and who knows what happens? There are other players, and some good ones, out there trying to win titles. Three of the major courses this year are ones he likes very much. For these reasons, I've always stood by my view that there wouldn't be any way he was going to end up not playing those tournaments. Of course, he can go a year without winning anything and still make the record, but what I'm talking about are things like confidence and momentum."

One theory put to Nicklaus is that the Tiger can never any longer stand 10-foot tall on the first tee. The bullet-proofing has simply disappeared.

Nicklaus, this most clinical of men, frowned again and said: "Nothing that has happened recently has anything to do with his golf game. It's nothing to do with him as a golfer. But as a golfer he has not played for five months and that is the only issue I have with him here."

The old golf computer whirrs in his head and he comes up with the Masters of 1986 and the implosion of the putative Tiger Woods of his day, Seve Ballesteros.

"I go back all those years and remember a conversation I had with Seve at the Champions dinner. He told me: 'Oh, I haven't played much this spring. I'm not very sharp. I haven't had much competition.' And then I kept waiting for him to make a mistake all week. When he hit a shot into the water at the 15th that was purely somebody who had not been playing a lot of competition. And if you later watched his swing on that shot it was quite obvious that he just quit on it because he didn't have a positive feeling about himself.

"I knew exactly when he hit the water. I was on the 17th tee and I heard the groans and I heard the cheers and I said, 'Well, Seve hit the water,' and people who liked him groaned and people who didn't like him cheered and really I didn't like that part of it.

"Tiger has to think about this, and he will be doing so because he knows he is not as sharp as he will be in a month's time. But maybe we should remember something going into these next few days. Tiger not sharp is still pretty good."

But is he still good enough to finish off the Golden Bear? We will know a little better in a few hours' time.