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Tiger Woods' mind derails Jack Nicklaus chase

Here we have an athlete who was trained by his father, a former Green Beret, to block out distraction. But there's a big difference between jingling keys, ill-time camera clicks and the annihilation of a person's image and family life.

In one breath Woods talks about his switch to a new putter. In the next, he's being asked for confirmation that his wife, Elin, is no longer is wife.

“I'm not going to go into that,” said Woods, who did, however, talk plenty about the putter.

Woods also entertained why he returned to the U.S. after a tune-up tournament in Ireland. After all, doesn't it make more sense to hang around?

“I don't practice as much as I used to because of the kids, nor should I,” the 34-year-old father of two said.

Limited practice time didn't hamper Woods before. So that's not it.

Hmm, what else could it be?

Someone asked Phil Mickelson for a percentage, 0 to 100, on the probability that Woods would pass Nicklaus. Not long ago the answer, even from Mickelson, would have been 100. That was then.

“I know it's more in his favor of doing it,” said Mickelson, who was pressed, let me count, four times to be specific.

Talk about hedging.

Maybe Mickelson, unlike Woods, understands what fellow pros like Graeme McDowell are saying. “Tiger's open nowadays,” McDowell said, meaning beatable. “Guys are starting to believe.”

Make no mistake, this isn't, as Woods would have us believe, a situation where the other golfers, through fitness regimens, are more capable adversaries these days. This is Woods coming back to the pack.

Woods has shown flashes of his former self, like a third- round 66 at the U.S. Open. Just as quickly he was out of contention, blaming mental mistakes. A strong mind used to be his biggest advantage. Surely Woods knows that golfers, even the best of them, historically don't win majors after the age of 40.

UK bookmaker William Hill Plc installed Woods as the 7-1 tournament favorite. But, as any gambler knows, anything can happen. And usually does.

Nicklaus knows that. Always has. Now we do, too.

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