ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The buzz at the 134th British Open is unmistakable: It’s Tiger and Jack, Jack and Tiger, template and titan, aged master and prodigy in progress, major sovereign and likely heir.
Take a snapshot of St. Andrews 2005 because it’s a landmark moment in the game’s history. Never again will you see the game’s past and present kings, present and potential “greatests,” competing together in a major.
When Nicklaus crosses the Swilcan Bridge for the last time this week at age 65, one dares to dream on Sunday he will finally, officially, inexorably pass golf’s torch to Woods — the man halfway to matching his legacy as the greatest player the sport has ever seen.
It’s only fitting that the exchange will take place at St. Andrews, the indisputable home of golf, where Nicklaus won twice (1970 and ‘78) and Woods already once (2000), and in golf’s oldest championship. The game’s ultimate changing of the guard practically demands such a sacred stage.
“There’s just no other golf course that is even remotely close,” Nicklaus said yesterday. “I fell in love with it the first day I played it [in a practice round before the 1964 Open]. I loved the opening tee shot. I felt I might be able to hit that one in the fairway. And it just got better. … I go through the golf course, and I can name 15 or 20 bunkers. They just pop out of my head. I would never think of that or dream of that at another golf course.”
There is undeniably something special about St. Andrews. As Nicklaus said, there is its treacherous array of bunkers with colorful names like the Coffins (No. 13), the Beardies (No. 14), Hell (No. 14) and the Principal’s Nose (No. 16). There are its seven massive double greens, the widest fairway in golf (the 110-yard expanse shared by Nos. 1 and 18), the Valley of Sin (at the front of the 18th green) and the incomparable Road Hole (No. 17), certainly the toughest 455 yards in golf. And all of it beneath the looming facade of the staid R&A clubhouse.
And all of those unparalleled characteristics are oozing with history and mystique. That’s because the Old Course’s record 27 Opens (counting this week’s) date to 1873, making it easily the oldest major sports venue still in use. And its list of champions is unassailable — from Braid and Taylor to Jones and Snead to Locke and Thomson to Ballesteros and Faldo to Nicklaus and Woods.
Bobby Jones once famously said no champion’s record is complete without a victory at St. Andrews. Why? Because quite simply, St. Andrews is golf.
“All credit to [Nicklaus] coming over here and making this his last one, because this is the home of golf. He understands that,” Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie said yesterday of the Golden Bear’s forthcoming final bow. “It will be some scene. It will be a fantastic sporting occasion. … What he’s achieved is incredible. Those 18 majors were a record that was untouchable. And now Tiger is coming. He’s halfway there. It’s amazing already.”
Woods, 29, who slept under a poster of Nicklaus every night as a youngster, is completely aware of the majesty of this week’s historical moment. But like most great champions, he’s more focused on success than sentiment.
Interestingly, Woods has won each of Nicklaus’ stated major finales: the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the British Open and PGA later that year and this season’s Masters. He’s referred to the bunch as the “JackSlam.” And while the rest of the golf world, even many players, speak of this week’s Nicklaus farewell in reverential tones, Woods prefers to employ humor.
“It’s been good every time he’s retired. I wish he’d keep retiring,” said Woods yesterday. “Hopefully, we can do it again this week.”
Woods’ somewhat terse treatment of the subject strikes some as disrespectful, but it’s important to remember that one of the qualities that makes Woods such a forbidding competitor is his lack of sentimentality. In his prime, Nicklaus was much the same. While the rest of golf was busy swooning over Ben Hogan’s exit from major golf at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, a then-27-year-old Nicklaus coolly went about the business of collecting his second title in the national championship.
For Woods, this week is about drawing one major closer to Nicklaus in the career Slamstakes, not memorializing his boyhood idol. And interestingly, that’s exactly as Nicklaus would have it. He grimaces at the thought of becoming ceremonial statuary and wants to be viewed as a challenger and a threat, not some gimpy has-been on a weepy farewell tour.
“My head says, ‘Hey, I can play this golf course,’ ” said Nicklaus, who shot a respectable 73 on Monday. “That to me is not ceremonial. So long as my head stays that way, then I’m not worried about the [farewell] part of it at this point.”
If only his body could extend this week’s two-man pre-tournament hype into a piece of the legitimate Sunday show.