Tiger Woods’s Mind Derails Jack Nicklaus Chase: Scott Soshnick

Jack Nicklaus had it right.

He saw it coming. Not the car crash, gal pals, text messages and subsequent marital ugliness, mind you. But having been there, done that, he knew that anything could infringe on invincibility. He knew that even golfing gods are people and that people, like putting greens, have undulations, ups and downs. And sometimes they’re impossible to read.

We certainly didn’t see it. We were too busy counting chickens and marveling at what was, not what might be, to remember the day-to-day grind and the toll that it takes. Heavy is the head and all that.

All along Nicklaus knew that, when it comes to the game of golf, where brain is on equal footing with brawn, there are things that can derail smooth sailing.

“I’ve always said you have to do it,” said Nicklaus, offering simple and shrewd in the same breath. “It’s not just a gimme. You’ve got to go do it.”

He was talking, of course, about Tiger Woods, who not that long ago was the surest of sure things to surpass the Golden Bear’s record of 18 career major championships. After all, we thought, what’s a quartet of majors to the most dominant athlete of our time? Heck, we thought, what about a Tiger slam -- all four in one year -- a clean sweep. No reason to doubt that anything’s doable. Not with this guy.

No Sure Things

But, as we’ve been reminded, there are no sure things, not even for Woods, whose championship odometer is stuck on 14. Still. Woods hasn’t added to his total since the 2008 U.S. Open, when, if memory serves, he only needed one good leg to edge Rocco Mediate in a playoff. We aren’t used to straining our memories when the subject is Woods and winning. Now we have to think back, back, back to the good ol’ days, before sponsors considered him a pariah, before he was the talk of the tabs.

Listening to Woods you would think there’s zero correlation between his personal problems and his scorecard. How, Woods was asked, is a battered image likely to affect his week at St. Andrews, where the British Open begins today.

“It doesn’t impact it at all,” was the answer.

Woods probably believes he’s immune to any sort of personal-professional intrusion, especially at St. Andrews, which the world’s top player considers his favorite course after claiming the Claret Jug there in 2000 and 2005 by a combined 13 strokes.

Here we have an athlete who was trained by his father, a former Green Beret, to block out distraction. But there’s a big difference between jingling keys, ill-timed camera clicks and the annihilation of a person’s image and family life.

Switching Putters

In one breath Woods talks about his switch to a new putter. In the next, he’s being asked for confirmation that his wife, Elin, is no longer his wife.

“I’m not going to go into that,” said Woods, who did, however, talk plenty about the putter.

Woods also entertained why he returned to the U.S. after a tune-up tournament in Ireland. After all, doesn’t it make more sense to hang around?

“I don’t practice as much as I used to because of the kids, nor should I,” the 34-year-old father of two said.

Limited practice time didn’t hamper Woods before. So that’s not it.

Hmm, what else could it be?

Someone asked Phil Mickelson for a percentage, 0 to 100, on the probability that Woods would pass Nicklaus. Not long ago the answer, even from Mickelson, would have been 100. That was then.

“I know it’s more in his favor of doing it,” said Mickelson, who was pressed, let me count, four times to be specific.

Talk about hedging.

Open Season

Maybe Mickelson, unlike Woods, understands what fellow pros like Graeme McDowell are saying. “Tiger’s open nowadays,” McDowell said, meaning beatable. “Guys are starting to believe.”

Make no mistake, this isn’t, as Woods would have us believe, a situation where the other golfers, through fitness regimens, are more capable adversaries these days. This is Woods coming back to the pack.

Woods has shown flashes of his former self, like a third- round 66 at the U.S. Open. Just as quickly he was out of contention, blaming mental mistakes. A strong mind used to be his biggest advantage. Surely Woods knows that golfers, even the best of them, historically don’t win majors after the age of 40.

U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc installed Woods as the 7-1 tournament favorite. But, as any gambler knows, anything can happen. And usually does.

Nicklaus knows that. Always has. Now we do, too.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net

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