(Reuters) - Tiger Woods has endured a victory drought of almost six years at the majors but Jack Nicklaus remains convinced that the former world number one is capable of winning at least five more over the next decade, if he stays healthy.
Woods, who has been sidelined from competitive golf since late March because of back surgery, needs a further five wins in golf's grand slam events to surpass the record 18 career majors piled up by Nicklaus, his childhood idol.
"If he's healthy, I think Tiger's got 10-plus years to play top quality tournament golf," Nicklaus told reporters on Wednesday, on the eve of this week's Memorial Tournament which he hosts in Dublin, Ohio.
"I've said many times, he's got a little over 40 tournaments to play the major championships, he's only got to win five to pass my record. As good a player as he is, I don't think that should be a big deal.
"But then again he's gotta do it. Plus he's also got to be healthy to be able to do it," said the 74-year-old American, who has long been known as the 'Golden Bear.'
Woods, 38, clinched the most recent of his 14 major wins in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he edged out fellow American Rocco Mediate after 19 extra holes.
He has since failed to add to that number, despite a few close calls along the way, and the aura of dominance he once enjoyed is a fading memory with the young guns of today holding no 'Tiger' fear.
"The first time that Tiger ever lost a tournament coming down the stretch was against Y.E. Yang," Nicklaus said, referring to the 2009 PGA Championship where South Korean Yang Yong-eun stunningly overhauled Woods in the final round.
"It was the first time somebody challenged him and actually beat him. (Woods) will probably have more of those challenges because more young players are coming along. But that's part of the game, and I think he expects that."
Woods himself is still uncertain about his likely return to competitive golf as he continues to recover from treatment for a pinched nerve in his back that had troubled him for months.
He missed the Masters in April, after having surgery on March 31, and on Wednesday he ruled himself out of next month's U.S. Open at Pinehurst, saying he was "not yet physically able to play competitive golf."
That will be the sixth major championship missed by Woods due to injury, and there has to be some doubt over his fitness for the July 17-20 British Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England.
On Wednesday, Woods made sure that he contacted Nicklaus by telephone to apologize for not being to able to compete at the Memorial Tournament, an elite PGA Tour event he has won five times.
"It was a very, very nice call, wishing me well (with) the tournament, sorry he couldn't be here," Nicklaus said. "He said he's doing well, progressing well and he's looking forward to getting back into the game. He misses it."
Asked if Woods had given him any details on his likely return to competitive golf, Nicklaus smiled: "I didn't ask him because I knew I was going to talk to you guys."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)