Jack Nicklaus seemed to put his foot in his mouth when he was asked about his interest in watching Tiger Woods return to competition.
“I’m not interested at all,” Nicklaus reportedly said Friday in the tuneup for the PNC Father-Son Challenge in Orlando, Fla.
It shouldn’t have been news, but in the era of hypersensitivity, any perceived slight or negative comment becomes a news story, especially with so little golf competition in December. For Nicklaus to meet a gathering of reporters, the topic of Tiger Woods, his 10-month injury-related absence and recent missteps inevitably arises (“Is Woods back? Yes, and get ready for more,” Dec. 4, http://bit.ly/2k8tnky).
If it’s not about Woods’ comeback, it’s about the 14-time major champion’s surgically-repaired back, the DUI arrest or the prospects for passing the 18-major mark that Nicklaus has owned since 1986.
And almost every time, Nicklaus has been gracious, understanding that the media put Nicklaus and Woods in the same headline because of their historical ties as the best players from their respective eras.
Knowing Nicklaus, I understand his comment and how it should have been taken. He likes to say things off the cuff, often just to prompt a reaction. Most veteran journalists who have covered the Golden Bear over the years understand that tactic.
Usually, when he realizes that more explanation is warranted, Nicklaus will follow up with a more in-depth answer, which he eventually provided in this instance.
“Do I wish him well? Yeah, but I’m not interested in watching him,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t watch golf much. The television set is always on, but I don't really watch it.”
Nicklaus has been a Woods fan for years, and he has said so countless times. Yet, Nicklaus also has said that golf no longer holds the same passion or allure for him as it did when he was racking up 73 PGA Tour victories in the 1960s-’80s, to rank third all-time, behind only Sam Snead (82) and Woods (79).
Of course, we could ignore the many accolades that Nicklaus has shared about Woods and take his initial comment as his true feelings, but that would be disingenuous, at best, and misrepresentative, at worst.
Let’s delve a little deeper. From my vantage point, I can understand Nicklaus’ comment. TV coverage of Woods is so gushy that a viewer can’t watch it for long without feeling a sugar high.
Watching the lovefest of Woods on Golf Channel and NBC for the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas earlier this month took me back to the turn of the century, when Woods was in his heyday. TV coverage would show every Woods shot and often provide little more than a glimpse of other competitors.
Even when Woods was not contending and started much earlier than the broadcast time, the opening piece would feature a compendium of Woods’ shots.
If anything, Woods’ absence introduced the golfing world to other players, which has helped the game bring broader exposure to younger talent.
The other point comes in the form of golf coverage in general. Those who covered golf for the past 20 years or so knew the players much better. They could parse the flippant comments versus those that should be reported.
They were professional journalists, without the burden of blogging and creating social-media posts to grab headlines.
Those journalists, unfortunately, are rare now as newspapers eliminate the golf beat and golf magazines close, leaving golf coverage in the hands of a smaller media crew that often doesn’t understand the game or its players.
Their interest falls more with making a story, not getting the story. So, we are left with having to read about arguably golf’s greatest player saying he’s not interested in the other arguably best player and his comeback.
“Tiger seemed to hit the ball pretty well over there and seemed to enjoy it, seemed to be pain-free,” Nicklaus told Golf Digest. “I didn't see enough of his swing. I saw him [as I was] walking by the television set and saw him hit a shot or two. The swing, as I saw, looked good. It looked like a swing of somebody who did not want to hurt his back.”
Nicklaus meant no disrespect, and I suspect that Woods didn’t take it any other way.
Unfortunately, some of those who covered Nicklaus that day didn’t get it.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli