The Golden Bear said Tuesday he is pleased to see how far Woods, a 14-time major champion, has progressed since spinal fusion surgery in April 2017.
Now comes putting it all together, Nicklaus said.
“He has got to get through the barrier of not having done it for a while,” Nicklaus said at Muirfield Village Golf Club, site of the Memorial Tournament he hosts and that begins Thursday. “When you haven’t won that always happens, and that’s human nature.
“But when you got a guy that’s as good as he is and as competitive as he is, he’ll break through that barrier. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Tiger win this week, not at all. I think he’s playing well, I think he loves the golf course; he’s always played well here and he remembers what he’s done here. … That will help him play better.”
Nicklaus, 78, is celebrating the 43rd playing of the event that is held at the Muirfield Village course he designed and named in honor of Muirfield in Scotland, where he won his first Open title in 1966.
Woods, 42, has won the Memorial five times, most recently in 2012. He has never missed the cut in 15 tries, but in his most recent appearance (2015), Woods shot his highest score as a pro — an 85 in the third round. He teed off alone for the final round and finished last.
Since then, Woods has had three back surgeries, the latest the fusion that kept him from swinging a club for more than six months.
The Memorial will be his ninth tournament of 2018. He has four top-12 finishes, including a tie for 11th in his last start at the Players Championship.
“I would hate to have been through what he’s been through, because he’s been through a lot,” said Nicklaus, whose 73 PGA Tour titles include a record 18 major championships. “But I think that he’s a tough competitor, he’s a hard worker and he’s still driven. That’s why I never counted him out.
“I’ve said if Tiger comes back and plays, I still think he’s got a shot at breaking my record. But whether he does or he doesn’t, even with 10 years passing [since Woods last won a major], it doesn’t make any difference. I think he’s still a great athlete and a great golfer.”
What makes it more difficult, Nicklaus said, is the plethora of young, accomplished players that Woods must now compete against. The Memorial, for example, has a strong field that includes Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and others.
“With Tiger having his problems, all these other young guys had the opportunity to learn how to win,” Nicklaus said. “And so when he comes back, all of a sudden he’s got 10 guys that learned how to win while he was gone and have learned how to win repeatedly.
“I think Tiger will be in contention for quite a while. I think he’ll win when he believes it himself between his ears. Maybe winning here, that would be one thing where he would start to believe he could do that. Wherever it might be. But I think he’ll win and I think he’ll win majors again.”
Woods spent Monday at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, New York, preparing for the U.S. Open in two weeks. He is scheduled to play in the Memorial pro-am on Wednesday with Peyton Manning, and he begins first-round play in the tournament on Thursday with Rose and Jason Dufner at 8:26 a.m.