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PGA: Nicklaus says McIlroy could win 20 majors

USA TODAY Sports PGA golfer Rory McIlroy signs autographs as he walks off the 18th green Wednesday during practice for the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

Since dining with Jack Nicklaus and a meeting in his West Palm Beach, Fla., office, Rory McIlroy has two victories, including his third major at the Open Championship last month.

Nicklaus, who won 18 majors, continues to encourage Tiger Woods’ pursuit of his record victory tally in golf’s grandest tournaments. Woods, who has 14 major victories but last won one of the PGA’s four landmark tournaments in 2008, is undecided on playing Thursday when the PGA Championship tees off at Valhalla Golf Club — a signature Nicklaus design.

“He certainly has at least another 10 years of playing major championships golf,’’ Nicklaus told ESPN Radio on Wednesday. “That’s 40 — at least 40 — majors to win. I believe Tiger will do that — if his health remains good. Nobody every wants their records broken, that’s obvious. But I don’t want him to not break the records because he’s not healthy. That’s certainly not in the cards of what I would like to see. Or what anybody would like to see.’’

Nicklaus, 74, said McIlroy is in position to win for decades to come, and that would bring ample opportunity to rack up major tournament titles like few before him.

“It depends on what he feels his priorities are and that’s his call,” Nicklaus said. “I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing. But you just don’t know what the guy’s priorities are going to be in life 10 years from now.”

Bubba Watson, who won the 2012 and 2014 Masters, and Kenny Perry, who came close to winning at Valhalla in 1996, see McIlroy’s length off the tee being a big advantage if he hits fairways this week.

“I still think around 15-under is going to win, I really do. I haven’t heard what anybody is thinking or feeling, but I can see a guy — if you see a Rory McIlroy drive it like he can drive it and he’s flipping those short irons into these holes, he can bust loose and shoot a low round here,” Perry said. “But you’ve got to be spot on. If he gets loose with the driver, if anybody gets loose with the driver, you’re going to struggle here. It is very important that you keep that ball in the fairway. You’ve got to have ball control, because those greens will not accept anything out of the rough.”

McIlroy, ranked No. 1 in the world, has four top-10 finishes in the PGA Championship and won in 2012. He landed a Lousiville with consecutive tournament wins in his back pocket, largely crediting a mental calm to his approach and isolating every shot, forgetting the good or bad on earlier swings.

“I’ve had a great run of golf and I’ve played well over the past few months,” McIlroy said. “Look, I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the World Rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.”

Recently recognized for his greater driver distance and refined putting stroke, Nicklaus praised McIlroy as the total package.

“I think Rory is an unbelievable talent,’’ Nicklaus said. “I love his swing, I love his rhythm, I love his moxie. He’s got a little swagger there, it’s a little bit cocky but not offensive. I like that. I like the self-confidence in a young man. He’s got an unbelievable amount of speed in his golf swing, he obviously hits the ball a heck of a long way. And he hits in there consistently and how he controls it.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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