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Nicklaus has sympathy for Tiger

Tiger Woods bristles at the notion he's in a slump just because he has gone six major championships without winning.

Jack Nicklaus saw things differently.

Just as he was reaching the prime of his career after winning the 1967 U.S. Open, Nicklaus didn't win another major until the 1970 British Open. That's a dozen majors of no titles, but plenty of second-guessing about what was wrong with his game.

"In my opinion, I was in a slump, even though I won 10 tournaments in that period,'' Nicklaus said Wednesday at Firestone Country Club.

"Everybody goes through lax periods,'' he said. "We all go through periods where we don't seem to work as hard or we're not as excited about the course we're playing. It takes something to wake you up.''

Woods did not seem overly concerned Wednesday at Firestone Country Club, where he will try to win his second World Golf Championship of the year.

He was asked whether his expectations were higher than those around him.

"Mine are awfully high,'' he said. "But mine are realistic.''

Woods points out that he has won four times this year in just 13 starts, and that his scoring average of 68.38 is his second-lowest in the seven years he has been on tour.

"And I've been labeled into a slump for some reason,'' he said.

That likely is because Woods won majors with regularity, only this year he will be without for the first time since 1998.

Not since 1969 had the majors been swept by guys who had never won one. And the last two majors went to players - Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel - who had never won on tour.

"Two things have happened,'' Nicklaus said. "I don't think Tiger played very well, and that gave an opportunity for some other guys to come on. Tiger has played so well for the last three to four years, you just expect him to be there no matter what.

"And when he's not,'' Nicklaus said, "you're astonished.''

The results were not surprising. The final-round television ratings for the PGA Championship were down 41 percent, following suit with the other three majors.

Is it good for golf when other players besides Woods win majors?

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem looked at the upside.

"If you go back 30 or 40 years, there might have been eight or 10 players that really dominated every other week,'' he said. "Now, we have 50 or 60, 70, 80 very recognizable players. That's very much in the long-term interest in the game.''

Woods looked at it only from a television perspective.

"I think it's good for the game, but obviously bad for the network,'' he said. "It's very similar to what happened at the NBA championships this year without Shaq and Kobe or Iverson in the finals. It's just different ratings.''

And Nicklaus?

He's seen it all before.

"Probably 80 percent of the telecast is where Tiger is,'' Nicklaus said. "If Tiger's not playing well, they don't know what to televise. Is it good? It was the same with Nicklaus and Palmer. Ratings were down. That's just the nature of the beast.''

Ratings tend to double whenever Woods gets in contention, and there's a good chance of that happening at the NEC Invitational.

He has won the last three times at Firestone in a variety of fashions - holding off Phil Mickelson to win by one shot, lapping the field by 11 shots in the dark, beating Jim Furyk in a seven-hole playoff.

Woods returns to Firestone, but not as the defending champion.

The PGA Tour took the NEC Invitational to Sahalee last year, where Craig Parry of Australia won for the first time in the United States.

Still, one look at the tree-lined fairways of Firestone should make him feel at home.

"The courses you've played well in the past, you always feel that way,'' Woods said. "This is one of those golf courses where there's no tricks, there's no hidden agendas. It's right in front of you. And it's very challenging.''

The 86-man field includes players from the most current Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, the top 50 in the world ranking and players who won certain events on six tours around the world.

The only player missing was David Duval, who withdrew to take care of an ailing back.

Micheel will be introduced on the first tee Thursday as the PGA champion. Nerves won't kick in for Curtis, the British Open champion, until the end of the week - he's getting married Saturday as soon as he finishes the third round.

For Woods, Masters champion Mike Weir, U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and four-time winner Davis Love III, this could go a long way in shaping the Player of the Year race.

By winning the Match Play Championship in February, Woods is the only player who can win the Triple Crown of World Golf Championships.

They're not majors, but this year, they're all he has left.


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