AUGUSTA, Ga. – If Tiger Woods wins his 19th major championship, Jack Nicklaus wants to be there to shake his hand. Put him at the head of the line, in fact.
That said, the Golden Bear won't be all that unhappy if Woods comes up short.
"Why would I want to give up my record?" Nicklaus said Tuesday, shortly after arriving at Augusta National and wearing the green jacket he earned for capturing six Masters titles. "Why would I say that?"
Nicklaus used to say it was a mere formality that Woods would eclipse his record of 18 major titles. No one disagreed, especially after Woods hobbled to his 14th on one good leg at the 2008 U.S. Open.
He was still in his early 30s. There was plenty of time to knock out five more major titles, plenty of time to make his case as the greatest golfer ever.
Then, it all fell apart for Woods. His marriage crumbled after revelations of numerous extramarital affairs. His golf game has yet to find its form as he tries to pull off yet another major swing change.
"I think Tiger will probably break my record," Nicklaus said. "I hope I'm around to see it if he does. But nobody wants to see their record broken."
Heading into the first major of the year at the Masters, it's not a surefire bet that Woods will become the greatest major champion this sport has ever had.
"Last year was an important year," Nicklaus said, fully aware the 2010's biggest events were at courses that favored Woods' game. Augusta National. Pebble Beach. St. Andrews. All places where he's romped to dominating wins. "I knew if he won one or two, he would break the record more easily."
Woods didn't win any.
"Now," Nicklaus said Tuesday, "this year is a very important year for him."
Woods is 35 years old — in the prime of his career. But he's no longer the intimidating force he once was, the golfer who always figured out a way to win in the final round.
Nicklaus usually couches any predictions about Woods becoming the greatest major champion ever by saying, "He still has to do it." These days, those words have a lot more meaning.
"The longer it goes," Nicklaus said, referring to Woods being stuck on 14 major titles, "the tougher it's going to be. That's just simple mathematics."
Woods used to be the automatic favorite at any tournament he entered.
Phil Mickelson is the defending Masters champion, and he's coming off an impressive win at Houston. He's the clear-cut choice at Augusta this week, having supplanted Woods as the one everyone else fears around this place.
"I think Phil," said PGA winner Martin Kaymer, when asked to pick between the two. "He has a good chance again."
A year ago, when Woods came to Augusta for his first tournament since his extramarital exploits were revealed, he was apologetic and sounding like someone who wanted to take his life in a new direction.
That wasn't the case Tuesday. There was an edge to his half-hour session with the media, flashes of the defiant Tiger when anyone tried to bring up the sordid exploits.
"My main focus is to get ready and be prepared and come to the first tee, be all cylinders go," Woods said. "As far as being a better person, I try to do that each and every day. That will always be the case."
No one would deny that Woods knows his way around Augusta as well as any other course.
Since turning pro and winning with a record 18-under score in 1997, he's never missed the cut and hasn't been lower than sixth in the past six years.
Even last year, coming back from a sex scandal and playing for the first time in five months, Woods was in contention on the final day and finished in a tie for fourth.
But he hasn't been able to follow up the promise his game showed that week. He wasn't a serious contender at the last three majors, and now he's no longer considered the man to beat.
That's not to say the other golfers are dismissing Tiger. Just ask Martin Kaymer, now holding the title as the world's top-ranked golfer.
"Obviously, he has won here many times," the German said. "You should never forget about him."
Woods hasn't exactly been hacking it up at Augusta. He also has three wins over the last 10 years, and that doesn't include his record 12-shot victory as a 21-year-old in 1997. But it was Mickelson who made 18 birdies last weekend at the Houston Open to win by three shots, his first victory since last year's Masters.
"I felt like that golf was in me this year, but I haven't been getting it out," Mickelson said. "I haven't had the same type of mental focus throughout the round that I expect. So to be able to have that type of performance heading into here feels very good. Reminds me a lot of 2006, when I was able to put it together the week before and carry the momentum through."
Woods doesn't have any momentum.
And Nicklaus is sounding a bit more confident about his record.