It’s a well-known story that Tiger Woods, growing up, used to keep a list of Jack Nicklaus’ major wins hanging in his room. Only when he had topped those 18 majors would Tiger’s ultimate goal be complete.
That Nicklaus-Woods narrative has been entrenched in the golf world since Tiger burst onto the scene in 1996. 21 years later, Tiger’s chase couldn’t be further from Nicklaus’ mind. Peppered with questions about Woods following his DUI arrest on Monday, Nicklaus, speaking ahead of his Memorial Tournament this week, talked simply about golf’s need to help Tiger.
“I feel bad for Tiger. Tiger is a friend. He’s been great for the game of golf. And I think he needs all our help. And we wish him well.”
“I’m a fan of Tiger’s. I’m a friend of Tiger’s. And I feel bad for him. So anyway, I think that he’s struggling. And I wish him well. I hope he gets out of it and I hope he plays golf again. He needs a lot of support from a lot of people, and I’ll be one of them.”
Like Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, Nicklaus was greatness born of a different generation. His intense brilliance on the course contrasted his humble attitude off it, the kind that’s so rarely seen among sports stars nowadays.
Where Tiger was pegged for stardom from the start, Nicklaus spent college deciding whether to be a pharmacist or an insurance salesman. He married his wife, Barbara, in 1960 when he was 20, and when he opted to leave college just a few credits shy of a degree, he did so primarily to support his family. He frequently talks about how golf took a backseat after having a family, with no hint of regret. The fame and fortunate that followed was, something he could scarcely believe.
Like Nicklaus, Tiger didn’t care much for the fame and fortune. It was always about the game. But when he rose through professional sports it was a different, and far more complex, animal. The pressure of celebrity was inevitable, but it was a burden Tiger never wanted, so he erected a brick wall around his life off the course. He poured himself completely into golf. Into being the best. Like so many athletes, Tiger sacrificed all semblance of a normal life in his quest for greatness. It worked, of course, but it was never truly sustainable. One by one, those bricks began to fall. His marriage. His game. His body. Now, his image.
Now Woods, who gave his life to the pursuit of golf greatness, has hit what we can only hope is rock bottom.
It’s why golf, and sports fans, should mediate on Nicklaus’ words. He accomplished the rare feat of touching the mountaintop while keeping both feet firmly on the ground, yet he has seen first hand how treacherous the journey down can be. He sees Tiger — his “friend” — as a man who doesn’t need criticism or armchair psychology, but one in need of community. Golf can provide that Tiger that help he needs, and it’s time the game listens, as one of its game’s legends helps another.