Commentary

Golf his way

Tiger would have been better off learning from the life that Jack built, not his game

Updated: April 8, 2014, 4:30 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

The difference between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus> is more than just 36 years and four majors.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesTiger Woods hits the ball by torquing his body.

Woods has perfect balance in his golf swing. Nicklaus had it in his life.

Nicklaus had one coach, one swing, one woman.

Woods has had three coaches, three swings and a Gold Club worth of women. One of each makes life simple. Multiples must be exhausting.

Woods had 18 majors lie down in his bassinet with him. It was his do-or-die, and he tracked it with a vengeance. But golf does not run well on vengeance. In golf, the harder you try, the worse you do.

Nicklaus got to 18 majors without knowing he was going there. He didn't even know people were keeping track until he got to nine or 10.

Nicklaus loved golf, but it never seemed as if he loved it any more than his fishing, his hunting or his piano bars. I remember once I was murdering some standards on a piano in an empty bar in a Vail hotel. Nicklaus was walking down the hall, poked his head in, and then came in and sang along. Can you imagine Woods doing that?

Woods' hobbies are as intense as he is. He spearfishes without a tank. Ski instructors in Colorado tell me he gets as mad at his own mistakes on the slopes as he does with them on the fairways. One of his most severe knee injuries apparently happened training with the Navy SEALs. If testosterone ever needs an endorser, this is the guy.

Even their swings tell a story.

Nicklaus' swing was powerful, but it was softer, rounder, much like Nicklaus himself. It came from a kind of gathering momentum: the lifting of the left heel, the big turn of the hips, the reverse C finish.

Woods' swing is a tower of torque -- like twisting a toy helicopter rubber band tighter and tighter. It's furious and fierce, like Woods himself. It tightens against unyielding hips, then uncoils against a stiff left knee. No wonder that knee has had four operations and now his back has had one, leaving him out of this week's Masters and almost certainly this June's U.S. Open.

Nicklaus had three operations his entire career -- a knee at age 44, a hip at 59 and a back at 64. Tiger has already had five surgeries by 38.

Nicklaus is buddies with his rivals. He often stays at Gary Player's house in South Africa. He and Tom Watson are as tight as sardines. He vacations with Andy North.

What rival is Tiger close with? Phil Mickelson? Surely you jest. Rory McIlroy? They share an occasional (vulgar) text, but not much more. Sergio Garcia? Ernie Els? Not even close. The hunter doesn't have lunch with the lion. As Tiger's mother always said, "My boy wants to take their heart."

Nicklaus wanted to beat the man he was up against, not stomp his soul. In the 1959 U.S. Amateur final at The Broadmoor, Nicklaus and the great amateur Charlie Coe were locked in a sensational match. On one hole, Coe hit a beautiful chip next to the hole and scooped it up. Suddenly, it hit him: He hadn't putted out. Nicklaus, without looking up, said, "Don't worry about it, Charlie. That was good."

[+] EnlargeJack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino
AP PhotoJack Nicklaus, shown at the 1971 U.S. Open with Lee Trevino, who beat him, is friendly with his rivals.

If Woods has you down 9, he wants 10. I've seen him bury his club with a 12-shot lead.

Nicklaus never lost his temper. There have been days when Woods can't even find it. When you have one goal in life, and you fail at that goal, it tends to fry the brain cells. Pretty soon you find yourself dropping F-bombs on TV. And when the brain starts frying, you tend to not think straight. Woods was involved in four rule controversies last year. Can you think of any Nicklaus was ever in?

Nicklaus didn't love doing interviews, but he was at peace with them. He'd explain what happened to him for as long as you wanted -- whether it was 63 or 83. Tiger sees every question as a poison dart. He is Jack Nicholson on a witness stand. If you can answer a question in two words, why use three? That's his right, of course, but that constant battle must wear on him.

I hear what you're saying. "Who the hell are you to tell Tiger how to go about his quest? It's worked pretty damn well, hasn't it?"

It has. But now he's stuck -- no major wins since 2008 and a body that's coming apart like a 1986 Renault. He has a third of his career left. I still hold a toothpaste cap of hope that he can get to 19. But something has to change.

When Woods delivered his mea culpa after his sex scandal, he said he was hoping for more "balance" in life. But if he got it, it doesn't show. He still cusses, throws clubs and is about as open as Fort Knox. He still blows by fans like a nor'easter. You see him going from tee to green, and his focus is always 100 feet ahead. That's fine, but what you miss is all the good stuff next to you.

What if he gave up obsessing about the 18 and simply enjoyed the 14 he has? Enjoyed his two beautiful kids, his life? The constant aching for 18 might be the very reason he doesn't have it. It's like trying to catch butterflies. You can search and search and then finally flop to the ground, exhausted. And while you're sitting there, one will land on your nose.

Tiger Woods' mistake was not making his lifetime focus Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors.

Tiger Woods' mistake was not making his lifetime focus Jack Nicklaus.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com