Commentary

A memorable day for a Tiger and a Bear

Originally Published: June 3, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The weather didn't cooperate, making for an easy day to stay inside. Such rain and cold would have rendered any other pre-tournament exhibition all but meaningless.

But the umbrellas were out in full force Wednesday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, and the otherwise unimportant skins game taking place on the final nine holes was something to see.

It isn't every day you get to watch Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods play golf together, rain or not.

[+] EnlargeJack Nicklaus
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAlthough Jack Nicklaus wasn't hitting as long as his younger playing partners Wednesday, the 69-year-old golf legend did manage to win two skins against the likes of Tiger Woods, Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink.

And it's no stretch to suggest that it might not happen again.

The two players -- who have combined to win 32 major championships and 139 PGA Tour titles -- were joined by Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink in one foursome. The group of Vijay Singh, Camilo Villegas, Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington also played a skins game in the group ahead.

But most eyes were on Jack and Tiger on the day before the start of the Memorial Tournament.

"I usually try to put my face on the golf course for a few hours while I'm here during the week," said Nicklaus, 69, the tournament founder and host, before venturing out into the rain. "I think while I can, it's OK. It's the only place I do it.

"They had me paired in the other group, and I said, uh-uh. I said, 'I haven't played with him for nine years. I'd like to play with Tiger.' So they said OK. I'm really looking forward to it. I told him I'd give him a couple of extra shots if he needed it. I'll throw my 98-mile-an-hour clubhead speed at him."

The Golden Bear did just fine.

He made fun of himself for playing several of the par-4s like par-5s and suggested he needed to play from the forward tees. But he put three good shots together at the par-5 11th to make a birdie and win two skins.

"He's a competitor. You can see that," Woods said.

Asked whether he expected to be the same way at age 69, Woods quipped: "I just hope I'm above ground."

Woods later squared it at two skins apiece at the 13th hole, with Cink also grabbing a skin before the remaining four holes were halved.

It was the first time Nicklaus and Woods had played together since the first two rounds of the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Woods captured his third consecutive major championship.

Nicklaus missed the cut by 1 stroke, nearly holing his approach to the final green for an eagle.

"I haven't heard a roar like that in a long time," Woods recalled. "It was pretty special to see Jack kind of revert back to the old Jack of days past and for him to suck it up and hit a shot like that when he absolutely needed it the most. It was pretty fun to watch."

For Nicklaus, winner of 18 major championships, that was the last year he played all four of golf's biggest tournaments in a year. In 2005, he played his final Masters and, later that summer, his final British Open, at St. Andrews, where Woods also won.

That was Woods' 10th major title, and he has since added four more to pull within four of Nicklaus' record.

"I think the pace he has and the quality of player he is -- even if he doesn't play well -- I think he'll probably still break my record," Nicklaus said. "But he still has to do that. I mean, it's not a gimme. He's got to win another five majors.

"You start anybody's career at age 33 and say you're going to win five majors, the chance of most people is probably going to be no. In Tiger's case, probably yes. We don't know.

"I would suspect that he is such a focused young man and his work ethic is so good, that I would suspect he will pass it. He will probably in the next three years. And that's fine with me. Then he can get it over with, and I can go shake his hand, and I don't have to worry about where I'm going to travel to shake his hand."

It was Nicklaus' idea to have a skins game, the indirect result of the financial crisis that has affected several golf tournaments this year.

In the wake of the negativity surrounding the Northern Trust Open -- Northern Trust was criticized for having several lavish parties in association with the golf tournament after accepting federal bailout money -- presenting sponsor Morgan Stanley decided it was best to go underground at the Memorial.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTiger Woods was all smiles Wednesday in the skins game at the Memorial -- especially after he chipped in from 60 feet to claim the final four skins.

Morgan Stanley is meeting its financial obligations to the tournament, but company representatives decided to downplay their role. Included was canceling the Wednesday pro-am that was to be filled with only Morgan Stanley people.

Their loss was golf's gain.

The first time Nicklaus and Woods played together was a practice round at the Masters in 1995, when Woods was an amateur. It was Woods' first Masters, and he played with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

"Arnold birdied the last hole to take all the skins, and I remember Jack not being happy about that," Woods said. "And basically he said, 'Let's go get Arnold on the Par 3 Course.' I'm like, 'Really? You want me to go play?' Let's go. It was pretty cool. For them to invite me to play basically 27 holes with them, certainly a day I'll never forget."

Wednesday might not have produced the same aura or atmosphere, but it did have its moments.

With the final four holes halved, the players decided to chip off to decide the final four skins. All four in the group went to a spot just off the green, 60 feet from the cup.

Of course, Woods chipped in, and nobody, including Nicklaus, could match it.

"I know what I am now," Nicklaus said. "That's why I don't play golf anymore. But it was fun. I had a blast. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the conversation, I enjoyed the company. For a lousy day, it was pretty good."

And probably one we shouldn't take for granted.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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