Golf

Tiger and Jack share memorable round together

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dublin, Ohio

Jack Nicklaus cracked his opening drive and was only half-joking when he turned to his hometown gallery and almost apologetically asked if his ball had reached the fairway. The vagaries of advancing years — and a cold, wet and generally miserable Ohio summer's afternoon — meant that after the 69-year-old unleashed a three-wood approach into the uphill 470-yard par 4, he was still 70 yards short of the green. "I had three par 4s I couldn't reach today," sighed Nicklaus after strolling down memory lane alongside Tiger Woods for a nine-hole Skins game at Muirfield Village, site of this week's Memorial tournament. "But that's OK. I know what I am now. That's why I don't play golf anymore." Nicklaus has a Midwesterner's distaste for staged sentimentality and has remained true to his word that he wouldn't devolve into a ceremonial golfer. He's found other things to do since he quit competitive golf, but today was different. Wednesday was the chance — perhaps, given the little golf Nicklaus plays these days, a final chance — for the two greatest golfers in history to share a few moments on the course together. They last played alongside one another nine years ago at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, when Nicklaus played his final PGA round on Friday and Woods triumphed in an unforgettable Sunday afternoon duel with Bob May.
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Initially, Nicklaus had been inserted in today's first group — featuring Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Camilo Villegas and Padraig Harrington — of an eight-man Skins game. "I said, 'uh-uh,'" the Golden Bear recalled earlier in the day. "I said, 'I haven't played with (Woods) for nine years. I'd like to play with Tiger.' So they said OK. I'm really looking forward to it. I told him I'd give him a couple of extra shots if he needed it. I'll throw my 98-mile-an-hour clubhead speed at him." Though he is now an old Bear, every now and again, he remembered the Bear of Old he used to be. On the par 5 11th hole, where no one risked a watery grave by going for the green with their second shots, Woods, Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink all laid up to about 100 yards from the green, not too far in front of Nicklaus, who needed two mightly blows. But while their wedges were imprecise, Nicklaus stuffed an eight iron to a few feet. The 18-time major champion was never going to miss that putt and walked away with the only birdie in the group, claiming the first two skins of the game. "Blind squirrels," shrugged Nicklaus in his typically self-deprecating way. But Woods wasn't fooled.
"He's a competitor, you can see that," Woods said later. "Anyone who has ever played the game at the highest level wants to come out and give it their best. You could see on certain holes, certain shots, him kind of revert back to the old Jack. It was neat to see. I hadn't seen it since 2000." This level of stratospheric athletic achievement — envision an improbable goal and have not merely the talent but the huevos to make it happen — is what floats Woods' boat. Woods remembered back to that day at Valhalla in Louisville, when Nicklaus sat near the cut line as the pairing got to its final hole of the second round. "I said, 'Jack, let's finish it up the right way.' He said, 'Definitely.' That means making birdie, and we both made birdie," said Woods, not knowing then that Nicklaus would need an eagle — which he came close to making — to play on the weekend. "He almost holed it from the fairway. I haven't heard a roar that loud in a long time. It was pretty special to see Jack ... suck it up and hit a shot like that when he absolutely needed it the most." As it happened, it was Woods who hit the shot Wednesday when he needed it most, chipping in on the final hole to add a sixth skin to his haul. Cink had one and Perry was shut out in an event in which the $50,000 prize money was donated to the First Tee program.
"You could see on certain holes, certain shots, him kind of revert back to the old Jack. It was neat to see."
Tiger Woods, on his round with Jack Nicklaus
Wednesday was the first time Nicklaus had a chance to see Woods' swing since his return from knee reconstruction surgery. Pointedly, earlier in the day he said he thought Woods was protecting the lead knee and that caution may be to blame for the crookedness in Woods' swing. "Do I think he's probably at the level that he wants to be? Probably not," Nicklaus said. "If you look at his golf swing, I don't think he moves out of the way of the ball like he used to. I think that's probably protective, and it's probably a good move on his part." Woods later agreed, saying that the "worst thing you can do is stretch out the ligament right away." "The surgery would have been all for naught. That's one of the reasons why it takes athletes a lot longer to come back," he said, adding that he was feeling stronger and more stable with each passing week. After watching Woods today, Nicklaus said he thought his swing was "a lot more aggressive than I've seen it in previous tournaments." "I thought he's been babying his leg a little bit (but) I didn't see much babying today. I thought he went at it pretty good." Woods comes into the Memorial, a tournament he's won three times, with, as always, a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders. He has five top 10 finishes and a victory so far this season but there's no question that he's let opportunities slip through his fingers — at Augusta, then Charlotte and most recently at The Players, where he could only muster a 73 on a forgettable final day. The U.S. Open is just two weeks away.

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When I asked him Wednesday whether he felt frustrated with his ball-striking, he answered by saying that it was only in Charlotte, for the Quail Hollow Championship, that he could finally hit balls on the range after a round to work on swing faults. "Did I have days where I struggled? Yeah, definitely," he said. "But I didn't have the ability to go out there and hit a bunch of balls to fix it and get ready for the next day. I had to go home and ice and elevate and get the fluid out of my knee, all those things, to get ready for the next day. "Meanwhile, just think about it (golf swing) and hopefully that will be good enough. I couldn't grow any confidence through physical change. "That's been one of the great things of being healthy enough to do that again. I'm able to get back out there and work on my game." He's clearly spent the past three weeks working on his ball striking, which was as majestic as it appeared effortless on the range Wednesday. If he manages to bring that caliber of shot-making to one of the most demanding courses on the PGA Tour, Woods will be very hard to beat. Certainly, Nicklaus seemed bemused when he was asked if he considered Woods to be the favorite. "Isn't he everybody's pick always to win?"

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