Before Nicklaus' historic victory at the 1986 Masters, it was believed the then-17 time major champion was done. Washed up. Finished. One sports writer, Tom McCollister of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, swore as much early that week. "He just doesn't have the game anymore," he wrote of the 46-year-old. "It's rusted from lack of use."
Thanks to a friend of Nicklaus, the article wound up on the refrigerator of his rental home that week. And although the eventual champion insisted he didn't use those words as motivational fuel, he certainly did glance at them often enough.
When Woods returns to Augusta next week after a breathless will-he-or-won't-he waiting game that mercifully ended Friday, he won't just be able to tack an article onto the fridge. If he chooses, he can wallpaper an entire house with criticisms of his game and assertions that he'll never win again.
This is simply the latest in a strange twist of events that feels like a golf-themed soap opera: As The Woods Turns. Before ever hitting a shot in competition this year, he was photographed in public missing a front tooth. When he did play, he played poorly, chunking and skulling his way to a two-day total in Phoenix that was dead last in the field. When he played again the next week at Torrey Pines, he could only withstand 11 holes before withdrawing with what he termed a failure to activate his glutes. Or in layman's terms, a sore butt.
Since then, he hasn't hit a single competitive shot, but that hasn't stopped the soap opera from churning out new episodes.
Depending which rumormonger you listen to at the local 19th hole, which message board you click on or even which sourced report you read, there exists a shocking dichotomy between the various Woods stories. Consult them all and you'll believe he's somewhere between ready to win a fifth green jacket and ready to call it quits. Even those reports had him posting a worst-ball 66 at his home course but scraping his way to a chunk-laden 74 in an Augusta National practice round.
All of which underscores the bigger theme here: The man who at his career height was the game's most dominant player ever has transcended into its most prodigious enigma.
Put another way, he was once golf's exclamation point. Now he's the question mark.
Debates over whether he will someday break Nicklaus' long-standing major championship record have devolved into debates over whether he is becoming the next David Duval -- a mercurial star whose downfall was equal parts gradual and abrupt. Rolling Stone also recently likened him to the late Michael Jackson, making arguments about his reclusiveness and lack of normalcy.
Maybe Woods shouldn't be compared to anyone.
His career trajectory has been unlike that of any other golfer in history. He has won more than one-quarter of his starts -- even with comparably substandard results in recent years. And in a sentiment he has echoed more times than any of us could even remember, his lone goal when teeing it up in competition is to win. Employing the second-place-is-first-loser philosophy isn't so much a mindset as it is the way he has built his career.
Even he might admit, though -- at least to himself, if not to the rest of us -- that, after heinous chipping displays and deactivated glutes, his decision to compete in the Masters is based less on that erstwhile will to win and more on a confidence that at least he won't embarrass himself on the game's grandest stage.
Of course, Woods' mere presence will hold out hope that he can turn back the clock. That, on the 10-year anniversary of his most recent Masters win, he can find some magic among the dogwoods and azaleas. That rumors of him being ready outweigh those about him being ready to quit, that reports of him posting an impressive worst-ball score override those of him stubbing chip shots.
Logic dictates that if Woods can return to form anywhere, it might as well be Augusta National. In the wake of his personal scandal five years ago, he returned to finish in fourth place. Without a Friday penalty for a bad drop two years ago, he could have won for a fifth time.
Even in his unsuccessful bid to triumph at this event over the past decade, even when his game has been something less than envied, he owns seven finishes of sixth or better in eight total appearances.
None of which will keep him from having plenty of motivational words for the refrigerator -- or the rest of his rental house. Just as was written about Nicklaus in 1986, it will be insisted, "He just doesn't have the game anymore."
Maybe that's right. Just like with Nicklaus, it'll be written, "It's rusted from lack of use." And yes, maybe that's right, too.