Nicklaus: Do I think Tiger can win? Yes (w/video, audio, photo gallery)

EAST MANATEE — During his stop at The Concession Golf Club on Wednesday, 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus sat down with The Herald for a brief discussion on next week’s Masters.

The annual major championship at Augusta National in Georgia is a prized tournament to add for any professional golfer’s resume, and with this year’s event marking Tiger Woods’ return to competitive golf after a layoff brought on by scandal, the buzz surrounding the event is even greater than usual.

The Golden Bear shared his thoughts on several Masters topics. Here’s what the six-time Masters champion had to say:

Who are the top contenders for the green jacket this year?

“To be very honest with you, I don’t follow it close enough to figure out. ... there’s going to be a lot of good players, a lot of really good international players. And the international field has been tough. (Angel) Cabrera won it last year. Trevor (Immelman) won the year before. You know, South Africa has produced a lot of very good golfers (Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Immelman) ... you have (Y.E.) Yang and K.J. Choi – you have those two guys.”

Can Tiger Woods win after such a long layoff?

“Do I think he can? Yeah. Do I think Tiger can win anytime he plays? Yeah.”

With Els’ recent success (winning at Doral and Bay Hill), is this finally the year he wins the Masters?

“Let’s put it this way. He’ll walk in with a lot more confidence than he has for quite a few years. He’s a good friend, and I like Ernie a lot. And I was just absolutely delighted for him to be able to play well and win, because I know that’s been getting to him a lot that he hasn’t been finishing golf tournaments. And now he’s done two in a row, and that’s pretty good.”

Who are the top players under the age of 30 in the world?

“(Camilo) Villegas would be one. (Rory) McIlroy would be another one, (Ryo) Ishikawa, (Anthony) Kim. Kim should play well at Augusta.”

Byeong-Hun An (a senior at Bradenton Prep) is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and is making his Masters debut. But first-timers haven’t had a lot of success at Augusta National. Why do you think that is?

“There’s some guys who have won the first time they’ve played. But it’s a difficult golf course to learn. You must learn the greens ... the first year I played (1959), I was 19. And I shot 150, I shot 76-74. I hit 31 greens in regulation, but I had eight three-putt greens. (Arnold) Palmer hit 19 greens and was leading the tournament. And I’m sitting there and said, ‘That didn’t compute to me to playing golf.’ So it meant to me that the thing you’ve got to learn at Augusta is how to putt those greens. And once you learn how to putt those greens, the rest of the game is not that difficult from tee to green. What most newcomers don’t have the ability to do is to learn that.”