Is Tiger primed, or past his prime?

As only he can, Jack Nicklaus cut to the heart of what is the most important major of Tiger Woods’ career.

"He’s played very, very well this spring," the Golden Bear said Tuesday.

"If he wins here, I think that it would be a very large step towards regaining confidence.

"He has not won a major in (five) years … if he figures it out here, it will be a big boost for him."

But the opposite is true, too, said the straight-talking mid-Westerner.

"If he doesn’t figure it out here, after the spring he’s had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him," Nicklaus said.

The message embedded in Jack’s words?

Nicklaus has never wavered in his belief that Woods will break his record of 18 majors. But he knows it won’t be easy from here on out.

"Obviously the older he gets and if he doesn’t win, it makes my record move out further," he said. "But I’ve said it, and I continue to say it that I still expect him to break my record. I think he’s just too talented, too driven, and too focused on that."

Certainly, with renewed confidence in his game, Woods recently has been talking not about tying Nicklaus but getting to 19; his friend Notah Begay even saying Woods thinks he has 20 major victories in him.

But he needs to get to 15 first.

And this may well be where it happens, and where Woods breaks the remaining barrier to being "back".

He hasn’t been better-placed to win a major since his world imploded in 2009, and not only because he comes to Augusta having won three tournaments and regained his world No. 1 ranking.

Woods isn’t one to bear his soul — his late father, Earl, was a military man who taught him to answer only the question asked and to volunteer nothing — but it doesn’t require a forensic examination to see that there’s something different about him.

I noticed, for instance, that he agreed to do not one but two sit-down television interviews in the lead-in to the year’s first major. In one of them, he didn’t even wear his Nike hat.

This may not seem like a seismic shift but consider that, historically, Woods has loathed doing any sort of media unless it’s been absolutely unavoidable.

Time magazine — back when it was important — wanted to put him on its cover. Yet his agent, Mark Steinberg, didn’t even bother asking Woods; he knew the answer.

The kinder, gentler Tiger was also on show on Monday, back-slapping on the range at Augusta National, BS’ing with other players before going out and playing some holes with Dustin Johnson and 14-year-old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang.

"He asked a lot of game questions," Woods said of the teenager who lists him as his hero.

"A lot of golf stuff. And I was asking him about school and stuff like that. What classes are you taking?"

And he even indulged me when I asked him playfully whether he’d ever won a major with a goatee.

"No because it takes a long time for this thing to grow, you know," he responded.

He even laughed when I noted that he’d had seven years to grow one, the time it’s been since his last Masters win, in 2005.

Such laid-back behavior has hardly been the template for Woods throughout his career at majors.

He’s usually cocooned; a world champion not just at golf but at shutting people out.

Maybe at 37 he’s figured out that all the emotional energy it takes to keep up those walls just isn’t worth it?

"I think it’s just a balance, a balance in life and that’s what you’re seeing," he said during a half-hour media session Tuesday.

It’s certainly the most Zen he’s sounded since explaining why he tied a Buddhist string bracelet to his wrist after the scandal.

"I think life is about having a balance, and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other, and I feel very balanced," he said.

Woods last month went public before he won at Bay Hill about his relationship with champion skier Lindsey Vonn — who’s spending a lot of time at his Florida compound — and on Tuesday spoke about his kids, 5-year-old Sam and 4-year-old Charlie.

"Life is better since I had kids," he responded when asked if it was more difficult now that he’s a parent to win.

"It’s a beautiful juggling act. That’s the joy in life and to be able to be a part of their life and watch them grow and help them grow. Getting out there and taking them on the golf course with me.

"To me, that’s what it’s all about.

"That’s how I was introduced to the game, and that’s how I built such a great relationship with my father."

It’s not like him to be sappy days before perhaps the most important major of his career, but maybe he doesn’t care because he knows how this story’s going to end?

Steve Stricker, who gave Woods the putting tip at Doral that changed his game, certainly thinks he knows how it will end.

"I played with him (on Sunday) and he’s hitting it nicely," Stricker said.

"Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter, too, which you need to get around here, or anywhere, if you’re going to win a golf tournament.

"It looks like he’s comfortable in his game and what he’s doing. I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure."

As much as putting and iron play, Stricker also sees a different Woods.

"He’s in a good spot, it seems like," he said.

"He’s happy and he’s relaxed and he just feels good about what he’s doing with his game, and it’s showing in his attitude, too."

It doesn’t really matter which came first, the happiness or the wins.

"I feel very comfortable with where things are at," Woods said.