Culture / Sporting Life

Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam Stick Up For Tiger Woods, Rail Against Golf’s Growing Slow Play Problem

The Game's Legends Come to The Woodlands For the Insperity and Open Up

BY // 04.30.23

Annika Sorenstam pauses before answering the question. Following Jack Nicklaus is never easy, but this is more about the greatest women’s golfer of all time wanting to give Tiger Woods his proper due. For his courage. Both Nicklaus and Sorenstam seem wowed by that with Woods coming off another surgery and another attempt to battle back from the horrific car crash that continues to put his golf future in doubt. With Sorenstam and Nicklaus at The Insperity Invitational, the Champions Tour event in The Woodlands that’s little more than 20 miles from the first golf course Tiger Woods designed in the United States (Bluejack National), Nicklaus and Sorenstam both talk Tiger.

“He wouldn’t be having the operations if he wasn’t interested in wanting to continue to play,” says Nicklaus, who sat next to Tiger at The Masters Champions Dinner this year like usual, just days before Tiger would withdraw from the tournament he cares about most. “He’s a very motivated and dedicated young man to continue to play the game of golf.”

For her part, Sorenstam watched and saw how much pain Tiger must have been in as he tried to walk championship long golf courses. Even as he largely downplayed it in his post round interviews.

“I can just see it from a fan’s standpoint,” Sorenstam says. “I think he’s in more pain than he lets everybody know. I think it’s a lot more serious. But he is so tough. And so courageous.”

Sorenstam and Nicklaus are playing in the Folds of Honor Greats of Golf event at the Insperity Invitational, alongside other golf legends like Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley and Tom Kite on a cool, windy Saturday. They’re still enjoying golf at age 83 (Nicklaus) and age 52 (Sorenstam), treating it with even more respect. They hope the same for Tiger Woods someday soon.

Maybe, this latest surgery on his right ankle to address post-traumatic arthritis caused by the injuries he suffered in that one car crash will do it. Other greats of golf are rooting for Tiger. Nicklaus, whose record 19 Major wins looks more untouchable than ever, and Sorenstam, with 10 Major victories of her own, chief among them.

“I think he’s showed a lot of guts and courage to play and try to be a part of what’s going on with the way he’s been,” Nicklaus says when I ask him about Tiger. “I think he’s done a pretty darn good job of it. He’s actually swinging very well. He just can’t walk.

“I sit next to Tiger nearly every year at The Masters dinner, we talk quite a bit. He’s ‘I’m really playing well. I’m hitting the ball great. My short game’s great. My putting’s good.’ He said, ‘I just can’t walk.’ And he says, if it helps where I can walk, I’m willing to do it.”

Which means another surgery on his battered body in this case. It’s impossible not to feel for Tiger Woods. Impossible not to root for him if you love the game of golf. Even if every new revelation about what he’s truly dealing with seems to hit like a sucker punch.

“I think we’d all like to see him play,” Sorenstam says. “He adds so much to the game every time he tees up. Whether he makes the cut or not, he adds to the tournament in so many ways.

“But you don’t want to see anybody in pain. You don’t want to see anybody, they’re hurting. Especially in his case. So hopefully this surgery will be the last of it. And will be good for him. Who knows.”

Tiger Woods Houston Open
Tiger Woods faces an uncertain golf future, but almost everyone in the game is rooting for him after yet another surgery.

That’s the thing. Tiger Woods himself cannot even know if this surgery will end up making a real difference. But he’s still trying, still putting himself through more, still fighting when no one would blame him if he just walked away from competitive golf. Nicklaus and Sorenstam clearly admire — and in many ways are wowed — by that fight.

Almost everyone in golf is rooting for Tiger Woods, but no one can make his body whole.

“I think he’s showed a lot of guts and courage to play and try to be a part of what’s going on with the way he’s been, I think he’s done a pretty darn good job of it. He’s actually swinging very well. He just can’t walk.” — Jack Nicklaus on Tiger Woods

You almost just hope Tiger Woods can get around as easily as Jack Nicklaus still seemingly does off the course at age 83 some day. Nicklaus does not do anything but putt for his team in this Greats of Golf event. He tees up a ball on his group’s first hole, takes a practice swing and pretends to be peering down the fairway to see just how far the ball went. While he scoops his golf ball back up off the tee.

Even this relatively minor concession to age is something Nicklaus has only done in the last few years. You hope that Tiger Woods gets to enjoy these type of ceremonial legends moments and easy camaraderie some day. But that may take letting his body heal for an extended period. That may take less pushing to come back.

“As we all know, dedicated and young doesn’t last every long,” Nicklaus says. “Tiger’s now 47.”

The Insperity Invitational brought some of the greatest legends in golf to The Woodlands. Including Nancy Lopez (center left), Lee Trevino (center right) and Jack Nicklaus (red jacket). (@PGATourChampions)
The Insperity Invitational brought some of the greatest legends in golf to The Woodlands. Including Nancy Lopez (center left), Lee Trevino (center right) and Jack Nicklaus (red jacket). (@PGATourChampions)

Time waits for no one in professional sports. Well, unless you’re a professional golfer who takes forever to hit a shot. Nicklaus, Sorenstam and the rest of the golf legends in The Woodlands have strong feelings about the issue that’s a growing scourge on the game too. And you thought baseball was the only sport that needed a clock?

“You’re allocated a certain amount of time. You should adhere to that,” says Gary Player, the spry 87-year-old who won nine Majors on the regular tour and nine Majors on the Champions Tour. “And if you don’t, you should be penalized.”

Nicklaus says being given a two shot penalty for slow play at the 1962 Portland Open during his rookie season was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Of course, Nicklaus was still good enough, still dominant enough, to win that tournament by six strokes. Even with the penalty.

“He wouldn’t be having the operations if he wasn’t interested in wanting to continue to play.” — Jack Nicklaus on Tiger Woods

Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam Tackle Golf’s Slow Play Problem

Nicklaus argues that rolling back the golf ball (reducing the distance balls travel) is one important step to speeding up play. The idea being that courses have to become so long with the current high-tech balls that just walking them adds to the time of rounds. But like Player, Golf’s GOAT is also in favor of more penalties being called. They’re almost as rare as a dodo bird these days.

“They need to really make an example and stay with it,” Nicklaus says. “Because it’s not very pleasant to watch somebody stand over a ball for a half an hour.”

Sorenstam, who works a lot with younger girl golfers and has a clinic for girl golfers set for right after the final round of the Insperity Invitational (a tournament with free admission for everyone) at The Woodlands Country Club on Sunday, argues the slow play problem starts young.

“I think it really starts at the Junior (Golf) level,” Sorenstam says. “But also the juniors watch the pros. They watch The Masters and see how much time they take. And they do the same thing. But I think it starts at the Junior level.

“. . . I remember playing in college. It’s all five, five and a half hour rounds. . . I think this is a root problem from the beginning. But it’s not fair. I don’t think the spectators — nobody enjoys it. If we’re going to grow the game, we’re running out of time.

“Time is a precious commodity, right?”

You don’t have to be a golf legend off the regular tour to appreciate that truth. Tiger Woods surely knows it. He’s reminded of it more every painful step he takes. None of us knows how long we have to make an impact.

Making the most of your time — rooting for people you respect like Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam clearly are with Tiger Woods — matters.

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