Nicklaus marvels at Woods


TWELVE months ago Jack Nicklaus answered the question that has exercised the minds of golf enthusiasts for years, when he said that Ben Hogan as the greatest player he had ever seen. Yesterday, he spoke in even more emphatic terms about a player be expects to dominate the game into the next century.

Nicklaus had just completed a practice round in the company of Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. Interestingly, Woods has already taken the first two steps on the Nicklaus "major" route by winning successive US Amateur titles.

"It was the first time I played with Tiger," said the great man. "Arnold and I agreed that he could win the Masters more times than the two of us combined." That's a minimum of 10 titles, given that Nicklaus has six to his credit and Palmer four.

Then came the really stunning assessment by Nicklaus. "Tiger is the finest, fundamentally sound golfer I've ever seen at any age, he said. "I was very, very impressed with him, to say the least. He hits the ball nine million miles and while I can't say whether he'll win here this week, he'll be favourite for the next 20 years. If he isn't, there's something wrong.

That is praise indeed, coming from a man who is not known to throw bouquets around. Indeed I can recall his reply in 1992 when he was asked if Nick Faldo was the best golfer in the world. "That is a distinction Nick will have to go out and claim for myself," Nicklaus replied. "He has yet to do so.

There were those of us who felt that Woods was being given too much attention when he made his US Masters debut last year, as a hugely gifted 19 year old. In the circumstances he performed creditably, shooting successive rounds of 72 to make the cut and then adding a 77 and 72 for an aggregate of 293 and a share of 41st place.

For a slim youth of 6ft 2in and 11st 6lbs, he hits the ball remarkable distances, possibly even further than John Daly.

. Jay Haas will be the next golfer to test the Par 3 contest jinx after winning the pre Masters competition yesterday with a birdie on the second playoff hole against Larry Mize.

None of the previous 36 winners of the par three contest on a nine hole course adjacent to famed Augusta National has gone on to win the Masters in the same week.

This year's competition was marked by four holes in one shot by Haas, Britons Sandy Lyle and Mark Roe, and Australian Ian Baker Finch.