2019 Masters

Like Nicklaus, Woods has unlocked the key to longevity

Tiger Woods is delighted after carding a five-under 67 on Saturday, his second straight round in the 60s, to go with his opening 70.
Tiger Woods is delighted after carding a five-under 67 on Saturday, his second straight round in the 60s, to go with his opening 70.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AUGUSTA (Georgia) • Tiger Woods is back in the hunt. Not just the hunt for his 15th Major, but the hunt for Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.

The former world No. 1 golfer finds himself on the verge of completing one of sport's greatest comeback tales, having played his way into the last group for the final round of the Masters yesterday (this morning, Singapore time).

The American superstar, who once feared nagging back injuries would prevent him from leading a normal life, fired a five-under 67 on Saturday to share second spot on 11-under 205 after 54 holes.

Woods, who has not won a Major title since the 2008 US Open, is level with countryman Tony Finau (64), both two strokes behind British Open champion Francesco Molinari (66) of Italy.

The leading trio teed off at 9.20am (local time) yesterday after officials moved up the start to try and finish before expected afternoon thunderstorms.

"It's been a while since I've been in contention here," Woods, who last won in Augusta in 2005, said.

"But, then again, the last two Majors count for something. I've been in the mix with a chance to win Major championships in the last two years, and so that helps."

Not matter what happens in the final round, the 43-year-old can do no better than follow the example of his great idol.

A single historical photograph is instructive. It shows Nicklaus, aged 46, being helped into the Green Jacket in 1986.

Who was that curly-haired youngster, the previous year's winner, who played the part of the champion's valet? Bernhard Langer.

On Friday, 33 years later, Langer, aged 61, made the one-under cut, the same mark as the 2018 champion Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, who won in 2015.

Augusta National is a place where middle-aged men cannot just dream of past glories but they have to re-enact them.

The reason is straightforward. The Masters is the only Major played each year on the same course and the one in which experience and course knowledge are most beneficial.

When Woods won the first of his four Masters titles in 1997, strategy was largely irrelevant. From the tee, he hit the ball farther than anyone else.

"My greatest advantage was my length," he recalled last week on the eve of his 22nd Masters appearance.

"The par-fives were all reachable with irons and the longest iron I hit into a par-four would be an eight iron. I hit a lot of sand wedges."

When Nicklaus was first helped into a Green Jacket by Arnold Palmer in 1963, he was the long hitter, the man who could play par-fives as if they were par-fours.

Like Woods, he overpowered the course.

As time went on, Nicklaus relied less on muscle, more on brain and it was his ability to think clearly, to plot his way around, that brought him his record haul of Majors.

Nicklaus had the incalculable advantage of a stable family life.

Woods, in contrast, can only reflect on a largely wasted decade and the cost of self-inflicted damage. But now, at last, he has surely learnt the key to golfing longevity.

He has tempered his swing. No longer does he slash at the ball with his driver, trying to prove he can keep up with the young guns - Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy - in a futile attempt to reclaim the vigour of youth.

When Woods was asked on Tuesday why he had not won a Major in more than 10 years, he was philosophical.

"After I won my 14th, I felt I had plenty more I could win," he said.

"I put myself there with chances on the back nine on various Sundays but just haven't done it.

"Hopefully, I'll put myself there again this year and get it done."

Even if he faltered in the final round this morning, there is no doubt that Woods can still contend at Majors even in his 40s now that he has replaced brawn with brains in his game. Like Nicklaus.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2019, with the headline 'Like Nicklaus, Woods has unlocked the key to longevity'. Print Edition | Subscribe