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Nicklaus still keeping golf in perspective

As long as Jack Nicklaus had consented to his full and undivided attention over the course of lunch, why not cut to the chase?

Is he pulling for or against Tiger Woods to one day eclipse his mark of 18 major championship victories, regarded as the true measure of his greatness and a record believed to be safe and untouchable - until Woods came along.

"For the game, which is far bigger than any individual, I think it's more important that records get broken and that the game continues to grow," Nicklaus said.

"But from a selfish standpoint, obviously I would love to see my records remain intact. That's only human nature. If I said anything different, I'd be lying."

As he spoke, Nicklaus, slim and vigorous again after undergoing a hip replacement a few years ago, picked over a specially ordered diet platter in the posh grill room of the Bear's Club (initiation fee: $350,000), a few minutes' drive from his longtime home in North Palm Beach.

At 63 and playing a limited tournament schedule, Nicklaus may be a lion in winter, but he is still very much the Golden Bear.

These days, among other things, Nicklaus owns a golf equipment company that bears his name, plus a thriving and respected golf-course-design business that keeps him and three of his sons busy and hopscotching the globe on his private jet.

When he is home in North Palm Beach, he and Barbara, who is widely regarded as the all-time dearest soul among PGA Tour wives, dote on their grandchildren.

As a player, Nicklaus has done all he can do. If there were a Mount Rushmore of golf, Nicklaus' visage would be front and center. Now, satisfied, proud, the greatest player of one generation watches and waits as the greatest player of the next makes his own mark on the game.

A year ago, after Woods had collected his seventh and eighth major championship titles in convincing fashion at the Masters and the U.S. Open, it seemed only a matter of time before he eventually broke Nicklaus' most daunting record.

But a funny thing happened this year. Despite another solid season - five victories and his fifth straight PGA Tour player of the year award - Woods added nary a major title to his total. Truth be told, the man who has made winning look so easy contended in one major tournament in 2003, the British Open, where he tied for fourth place.

Then, late last month, Woods, who will turn 29 on Tuesday, revealed that he planned to marry Elin Nordegren, a decision that will no doubt enrich his personal life but potentially complicate his professional quest - especially if the young couple starts a family.

Given the vagaries of golf, the tug of family, and the cushy comfort of the fortune he has already amassed, it is impossible not to wonder if Woods will remain as determined and driven as he has been.

Do Nicklaus' 18 major titles - a record believed safer than Ted Williams' .400 batting average until Woods came along - suddenly seem imposing, if not unreachable, even for Woods?

"It's very reachable," Nicklaus said with a shake of his head, showing no doubt or regret. "A lot is going to depend on what he wants to do and how much he wants to work."

In just over seven years as a pro, Woods has demonstrated that he has the firepower to surpass Nicklaus' career accomplishments, dominating golf and winning majors at an even faster rate. But unless or until Woods proves he has the staying power, Nicklaus remains the greatest champion in the history of the game.

Nicklaus, who married right out of Ohio State and had three children by the time he was 25, believes marriage may help, not hinder, Woods.

"He will have somebody to share it with, to do it for - and when he has kids, his kids will keep him playing," Nicklaus said. "Tiger may say in three or four years that he's had enough, or he may refocus and win 30 majors. Who knows?"

When Nicklaus was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, one of his heroes was the great amateur champion Bobby Jones. But he was an all-round jock too busy playing whatever sport was in season to know or even care about Jones' records.

It wasn't until 1970, when Nicklaus, then 30, had just won his second British Open, that a writer in the press tent piped up and said, "Jack, congratulations, you just won your 10th major; you only have three more to tie Bobby Jones," Nicklaus recalled. (Jones' record included U.S. Amateur and British Amateur titles, then considered majors.)

Nicklaus was dumbstruck. "It had never entered my mind," he said. "But suddenly, Jones' record became something to break."

As Woods takes aim at his record, Nicklaus can't help but look back on majors he feels he didn't adequately prepare for early in his career, before he began chasing Jones. He also wonders if he might have pushed himself more once he broke Jones' record by winning the 1975 PGA Championship; after that, Nicklaus was in uncharted territory.

"If I'd had a bigger number to shoot at, I would have won more majors," he said. "But it wasn't an issue until the press made it an issue. For Tiger, the press has made it an issue since day one."

Unless you were a golf fan before Tiger Woods was born, or you've spent hours watching "Golf Channel Classics, it's hard to appreciate Nicklaus in his prime.

Unlike the media and money firestorm that awaited Woods when he turned pro in 1996, Nicklaus, the U.S. Amateur champion in 1959 and 1961, was facing an uncertain future when he quit the insurance business and quietly turned pro in the waning days of `61.

He had a wife and 3-month-old baby to support, and the leading money winner that year, Gary Player, earned only $64,540. Far from the smooth, born-to-be-great image Woods cut even as a rookie, Nicklaus was a chubby kid with a buzz cut, a high-pitched voice, and a flying right elbow.

Nicklaus wasted no time announcing his arrival, winning three tournaments as a rookie in 1962, including the first of four U.S. Opens. As impressive as he was in that Open, Nicklaus turned many fans against him by beating Arnold Palmer, already the dashing toast of golf, in his own backyard at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh.

In 1964, Nicklaus won the first of eight money titles on the PGA Tour, even if the first of his five player of year awards didn't follow until `67. As he methodically went about adding to what would become a career total of 71 PGA Tour and 100 worldwide victories, Nicklaus was as dominant in his generation as Woods is in his.

Like Woods, Nicklaus had power to burn. Early PGA Tour statistics that list his driving distances in the 265- to 270-yard range are deceiving. For one thing, he was playing with a small, wooden-headed driver and a mushy ball - both antiquated by today's standards. Also, for accuracy, Nicklaus often hit a 2-iron off the tee.

When he wanted to, even with that equipment, Nicklaus could clobber drives 300 yards. Tales abound from his college days. At the Scarlet Course at Ohio State, where the team played its matches, Nicklaus routinely drove the green at the 16th hole, a 379-yard dogleg, where even cutting the corner required a carry of 340 yards.

Most Nicklaus observers consider 1972 to be his greatest year. He won the fourth of his six Masters titles; he won his third U.S. Open at his favorite course, Pebble Beach; and he shot a 66 in the final round of the British Open to finish a stroke behind Lee Trevino. He won seven tournaments that year, the money title, and the player of the year award.

The crowning achievement of his storied career came in 1986, when Nicklaus, 46, past his prime, shot a 69 and 65 and sent the roars of the galleries echoing across Augusta National as he won his sixth Masters and final major title.

Along the way, the honors and accolades have been too numerous to mention. Two that aren't too shabby: Athlete of the Decade from Sports Illustrated, and Golfer of the Century from Golf magazine.

Does he ever relive the glory days? A tournament, a shot, a moment?

"I don't ever think about it," said Nicklaus, shaking his head for emphasis.

How could he not?

"I just don't," he insisted. "I don't take golf home. I never have. If you come into my office or my home, there is not a golf thing. Nothing. Zero."

Nicklaus prefers paintings and photos from his other passion, hunting and fishing. Besides, even when he does see his old trophies he has a hard time remembering which one is for what.

At the risk of venturing into pop psychology, what drove Nicklaus seems to have been different from what drives Woods. From birth, it was instilled in Woods by his father, Earl, to have confidence because he was special, a purebred champion.

Not so for Nicklaus. Not until he made his first Walker Cup team and won the 1959 U.S. Amateur at 19 did he allow himself to become confident.

"I never looked at myself as being that good," he said. "I just worked as hard as I could to get where I wanted to get. Maybe that is why I achieved what I achieved."

Aside from preparing for and playing in a few tournaments, he may not play five rounds in a year, 10 tops. To him, tournament golf is fun golf. Of his two best friends in life, one is Barbara, who has never been a golfer, and the other is a hunting and fishing buddy from Alaska.

"He plays twice a year in a scramble - can't break 120," Nicklaus said with a laugh. "Do we talk about golf? No."

Nicklaus shrugged. "Golf just doesn't dominate my life."

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