As Jack Nicklaus approached 40 years old, he faced a hard decision. He could feel his game getting away from him. Well, it was obvious. Nicklaus had just endured his first winless year as a professional.
Before 1979, Nicklaus had won at least TWICE every single year since he turned pro. Nicklaus finished 45th on the PGA Tour in earnings in 1979. He had finished first or second in earnings every other year during the 1970s.
But the most gruesome turn was at the major championships. At the end of the 1978 season, Nicklaus missed his first major championship cut since the 1960s. Then, in Nicklaus’ last major before turning 40, he finished 65th at the PGA Championship, the lowest post-cut finish of his entire career. Yes, Nicklaus could feel his game getting away from him, and he knew exactly why. His swing had gotten too shallow.
And Nicklaus faced the hard decision: Should he fix it?
* * *
Tiger Woods turns 40 Wednesday, five words I never expected to write. Every now and again, athletes come along and they seem invulnerable to age — you just keep waiting and waiting for them to turn back the clock. Mike Tyson was like that. Jerry Rice was like that. Roger Federer is like that. Most of all, there’s Tiger Woods. People just can’t give up on him.
Well, there’s a good reason for that. Nobody ever played golf like him. Nobody ever played any game quite like him. I was there in Louisville fifteen years ago, when Woods was just 25 years old and playing to win his third consecutive major championship.
Of course, he was playing for more than just a third straight major. Everything Woods did in those days felt new; he was Magellan discovering new golfing lands. He had won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots in what most golf historians will still tell you was the greatest performance in the history of the sport. Then, he shot 19-under par at the Open Championship at St. Andrews, turning that holy ground into a putt-putt course.
He was, as Tom Watson said, the longest hitter, the straightest hitter, and the best iron player. Woods had the best short game, the most imagination around the greens, he was the best putter, and he thought his way around the golf course better than anyone. He was, essentially, unbeatable. Nobody — not even Nicklaus — achieved such heights.
In his first round at the PGA Championship in Louisville, he was paired with Jack Nicklaus. It was meant to be a sweet moment, the old master playing with the young one. Nicklaus was 60 years old. Woods was 25.
Nicklaus shot 77. Woods shot 66. But it wasn’t the score that mattered. It was the golf.
“He could have shot 60,” Nicklaus gushed. “He was unlucky.”
Yes, in those days Tiger Woods was indelible. He seemed immune to the inconvenient laws of humanity such as bad days or aging.
* * *
As Jack Nicklaus approached 40, he more or less stopped working on his golf game. For one thing, he didn’t have to work at it. His swing was grooved. His mind was sharp. He had a near-photographic memory for golf shots, so wherever he played he had an enormous catalog of recollections to work from.
But, second thing, his life had changed. Golf had just become less important. Winning had become less important. His kids were growing up, playing sports and he wasn’t going to miss their games. And, really, what else was left to prove? He had already won more major championships than anyone. He had already won enough money.
He pared down his schedule. He spent more time building his business. When I asked Nicklaus how often he practiced in those days, he said just one word: “Never.” Nicklaus wasn’t exactly a part-time golfer, but he certainly wasn’t a full-time golfer.
And so, he had to think hard about rebuilding his swing. As every middle-aged golfer can tell you: It is very, very hard to fix a golf swing. Nicklaus wasn’t sure he wanted to work that hard. Nicklaus wasn’t convinced that he could pull off the change. And, perhaps most to the point, Nicklaus did not know if changing would be worth the effort. Nicklaus played golf to win. Fixing the swing would only be worth the time and effort if he could again become the best golfer in the world. And he wasn’t sure.
Nicklaus will tell you that he very seriously considered retiring. Then, he talked with his wife Barbara.
“Jack,” Barbara said. “You love golf. I don’t think you’re ready to give this up yet.”
That made sense to him. He asked his old coach Jack Grout to come live nearby. He decided to try and fix the swing.
* * *
In Louisville, in 2000, Tiger Woods entered the final day of the PGA Championship with a one-shot lead over a couple of grinders named Scott Dunlap and Bob May. We reporters went to the golf course to write about a coronation.
Instead, we got a shocker. One those grinders — a 31-year-old Bob May — decided to have the day of his life. May birdied the second hole to take a one-shot lead. He birdied the sixth to make it a two-shot lead. It was confusing and spectacular at the same time.
And so began one of the great and unlikely duels in golf history. May and Woods had been born 17 miles apart in Southern California, and May was the big deal when Woods was growing up. Maybe that gave May confidence. Maybe it all just seemed so improbable that May was able to let go of his doubts.
Whatever the reason, when Woods made back-to-back birdies to tie for the lead, Mays seemed unperturbed. He countered with three consecutive birdies on the back nine to take the lead back. May led by one going into the 17th hole.
Then Woods did something that seemed unreal: He blasted a 324-yard drive right down the center of the fairway. That doesn’t sound all that impressive now, but you have to remember, this was back when a 300-yard drive blew up the imagination. In 2015, 26 PGA Tour golfers averaged 300-plus yards on their drives, led by Dustin Johnson at a staggering 317.7 yards.
But in 2000, there was only one — John Daly. And he hit almost never hit the ball straight.
So Woods’ 324-yard laser drive seemed like something out of a dream. Then, following that up, Woods hit a towering iron shot that stopped two feet from the cup. He made the birdie putt to tie the match.
On the next hole, Woods needed to sink a curling downhill 7-footer just to force a playoff. He made the birdie. Woods never missed important putts in those days. On the first hole of the playoff, Woods needed a 20-foot birdie to take the lead. No only did Woods make the putt, he walked behind it and pointed at the hole as if to say, “Get in there ball. That’s a good ball.”
That was the birdie that won Woods the 2000 PGA Championship. You see highlights of it all the time now.
“You have to reach deep inside yourself,” Woods said when asked how he did it. He smiled brightly. Woods could do anything he wanted. And it sure seemed like he would be young forever.
Nicklaus did fix his golf swing. It took a lot of grueling practice, and more than once during the process, he turned to his teacher Jack Grout and said, “I’m getting too old for this.” But he worked harder on his swing than he had in 20 years. And it worked, and Nicklaus had one of the great renaissances in golf history.
At 40, Nicklaus won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, his fourth U.S. Open championship.
“I want to stop the retirement talk right now,” he said. “I’m not going to retire. Perhaps I should. Perhaps I don’t have any sense. If I wanted to go out with all the dramatics, I would say goodbye. But I kind of like this crazy game.”
Later that year, he won his fifth PGA Championship. At 42 years old, he was on the brink of winning his fifth U.S. Open when that son-of-a-gun Tom Watson chipped in on him. Finally, at 46 years old, he won his sixth Masters, the 18th major championship of his glorious career. It was that final chapter that pushed Nicklaus’ major championship record to where no one will reach it for a very long time.
If he had retired at 40, he would have finished with 15 major championships — just one more than Tiger Woods has right now.
* * *
Tiger Woods turns 40 Wednesday, and he’s ranked 416th in the world, and he does not know when he will pick up a golf club again. His body has betrayed him again and again over the last few years. The countless violent swings have taken their toll.
Nobody, not even Tiger Woods, knows if he will come back, when he will come back or how well he will come back. It’s all in limbo. Woods is in that awkward time when it is too soon to write the requiem for his career, but it is too late to be especially hopeful about the future. He faces daunting odds.
But he is Tiger Woods. And with Woods, it is hard to let go of the brilliant past — it feels so close. It feels like just yesterday that Woods played such sublime golf that everyone else just faded into the background. It’s hard to believe that golf is gone forever.
Woods’ challenge is much greater than Nicklaus’ was. Woods has to get healthy before he can even try to formulate a swing for his age. Then, if that even happens, he has to find the drive to build his game again. Can he find it? He has young children. He has money. He has glory. He has his place in golf history.
“Did you really think about retiring before you turned 40?” I asked Jack Nicklaus.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I knew how hard it would be to come back. I could have retired and been very happy.”
Then he paused for a minute.
“But,” he finally said, “I’m glad I didn’t.”