(Reuters) - Jack Nicklaus remains convinced that Tiger Woods will end his five-year title drought at the majors but says that not enough credit has been given to the players who have triumphed in golf’s big four events during that time.
Nicklaus was hugely impressed by Phil Mickelson’s stunning three-shot victory in last week’s British Open at Muirfield and has marked the American left-hander out as the favorite for next month’s PGA Championship, the last of the season’s majors.
“Phil is obviously playing awfully well,” golfing great Nicklaus said on Thursday during a conference call to preview the August 8-11 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.
“He would have to be the favorite going into Oak Hill, on record for how he has played. If you look at the history of the guys that are playing today, only Tiger has won more majors as an active player.”
Woods won the most recent of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open and has only fellow American Nicklaus, who piled up a record 18 victories, ahead of him on the all-time list.
“Phil has won five (majors) now,” said Nicklaus. “He has won three of the four majors. He has not won the U.S. Open championship. Phil is going to go down in history as one of the great players in the game, there is no question about that.”
Mickelson, 43, had never previously triumphed at the British Open until he coasted home at Muirfield on Sunday with a dazzling five-under-par 66, a stunning finish to a week of tough scoring conditions on a firm, fast-running layout.
For Nicklaus, that breakthrough victory in the year’s third major was even more impressive because the American left-hander had to adapt his swashbuckling, high-ball game to the very different demands of links course golf.
“His ability to see that he needed to adapt himself to the Scottish conditions was much to his credit,” said Nicklaus. “Phil has always tried to take his game and play his game and put it on the golf course, and that doesn’t always work.
“And here he is into his forties and he is finally realizing that driver did not have to come out of the bag. He found a golf club that he could keep it in play with.
“He found that he is a good enough player, matter of fact a terrific player, who doesn’t need to hit it 10 miles. He can hit it into the fairway somewhere and play like everybody should want to play and be successful. I give him great kudos.”
Mickelson’s triumph at Muirfield reminded Nicklaus of his own victory there, at the 1966 British Open.
“For him to go and win at the British Open as high as he hits the golf ball, it’s a lot like I was,” said the 73-year-old Nicklaus. “I won at Muirfield and I was a high-ball hitter.
“And people said, ‘Jack will never win, particularly at Muirfield. It’s a golf course he can’t play.’ And I proved them wrong there by being a little smarter than some of the other guys on that particular week.
“I didn’t use a driver very much. We had to use the driver back in those days because the golf ball didn’t go as far but Muirfield this time (last week) was much faster than when I won.”
Nicklaus was asked to assess next month’s PGA Championship prospects for Woods, who has triumphed a season-high four times on the 2013 PGA Tour in just 10 starts.
“Obviously Tiger has had a very, very good year,” said Nicklaus. “He has not finished off a couple of majors that he has had an opportunity to be involved in.
“You would be pretty hard pressed to make him, if not the favorite, one of the favorites going into Oak Hill. He will play Oak Hill well, he will control his golf ball there and manage his game well, just as he does every week.
“Will he win more majors? I think so. When? I don’t know.”
Woods tied for fourth at the Masters in April and shared sixth place at Muirfield last week, on both occasions failing to capitalize after playing his way into contention.
“I don’t know what is happening in his head, between his ears,” Nicklaus said of Woods’ lengthy title drought at the majors. “Each person handles things differently.
“Certainly, winning four times this year he had to have something that was working properly between the ears coming down the stretch in those tournaments. Something prevented him from winning the majors that have been played so far.
“But then again maybe you’ve got to give Adam Scott (Masters), Justin Rose (U.S. Open) and Phil Mickelson a little bit of credit for playing better. That’s the way I look at it.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue