ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Sometimes fate pens the perfect script.
Golf’s greatest, past and present, combined to provide unparalleled theater at the 134th British Open yesterday. And though Tiger Woods might have claimed the tournament, Jack Nicklaus carried the day.
Perhaps the golf gods could have waited two more days before forcing the Golden Bear to take his final bow. But aside from a Sunday sendoff at St. Andrews, Nicklaus’ final major moment was about as good as it gets.
The 65-year-old icon, an 18-time major champion, a pillar of class and family values, capped his career by rolling in a 14-foot birdie putt at the home of golf’s home hole.
“I knew that the hole would move wherever I hit it,” said Nicklaus, only half joking. “I wanted that putt badly.”
His final-hole heroics weren’t enough to carry him into the weekend, a second-round 72 leaving him at 3 over, two beneath the 36-hole cut. But as family, friends, fellow players and an enormous gallery of fans showered him with tears and cheers, perhaps only the great competitor himself cared.
There were extended hugs with son Steve, wife Barbara and longtime rival, dear friend and playing partner Tom Watson. There was a nod to the cluster of players (Tom Lehman, Brad Faxon and Vijay Singh) leading a standing ovation on the steps of the R&A clubhouse.
In the massive stands behind Nicklaus, a fan waved the Union Jack with the words “Thanks Jack” etched across it. And the soundtrack for it all was the goose bump-inducing, thought-absorbing applause, the din of tribute.
“I just sort of let my emotions go with it,” said Nicklaus, who played well from tee to green but struggled with his putting in both rounds. “Nothing is going to replace the 18th at St. Andrews. … People have asked me what would you want to do differently [in his career]. And I can’t think of anything, frankly.”
Approximately an hour after his final putt, Nicklaus was still conducting his post-round interview when Woods arrived at the media tent. Nicklaus concluded his comments, grinned at Tiger, shook his hand and said, “Nice playing.” The two exchanged a few cursory pleasantries, and then Nicklaus left his chair to Woods, symbolically turning over golf’s throne for good to the 29-year-old.
Woods shot a second-round 67, carrying him to 11 under and a four-stroke midway lead over Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie. Almost as soon as Woods took his place on the dais, he was asked about the legend he has dedicated his life to chasing.
“He’s the greatest champion that’s ever lived,” said Woods, who appears well on his way to a 10th major victory, a second uprising at St. Andrews and another slew of career comparisons to Nicklaus. “He’s been the benchmark for every player that’s ever played the game, at least in my generation. … To be compared to the greatest champion that’s ever lived in our game, it’s certainly an honor that I’m even mentioned in that conversation.”
Just as Nicklaus did in his prime in victories at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978, Woods simply overpowered the 7,279-yard Old Course yesterday, recording five stress-free birdies (Nos. 3, 5, 9, 10 and 14) during his bogey-free round.
Once again, Woods savaged the famed St. Andrews loop (Nos. 7-12), driving the greens of the 352-yard ninth, the 380-yard 10th and the 348-yard 12th. His lone miscue was a three-putt par at the 12th. But generally Woods looked like the unstoppable force of 2000, when he blistered the field at St. Andrews by eight strokes en route to an Open record of 19-under 269.
He ranks second in the field in both driving distance (338.5 yards) and driving accuracy (27 of 32 fairways), a devastating combination on any course. And while his putting yesterday wasn’t quite as impressive as it was during his opening 66, his pace was still excellent. Ask Woods, of course, and there’s still plenty of work to do.
“I still have to put up a quality round tomorrow and the same on Sunday,” he said. “I still have to take care of my own business because there are a lot of things that can happen on this golf course.”
Ask just about any of the other 79 players who survived the cut at 1 over, however, and they’ll tell you the 134th Open is virtually over.
Woods never has blown a 36-hole major lead of any variety, much less a four-stroke cushion. He’s well on his way to matching or surpassing his record total from the 2000 Open, where he was also 11 under through two rounds (67-66). And he’s playing on a course where par for him, given three drivable greens and two par-5s, is closer to 67 than 72.
“We are watching a unique golfer on a unique course, and it will be a privilege to play with him,” said Montgomerie, who made seven birdies and an eagle during a splendid second-round 66 to cement his return to golf’s elite level. “If Tiger Woods plays the way that Tiger Woods can play around this type of golf course, I would have to agree with a number of other players that second place is what we’re [playing for]. It’s a bit like [top-ranked Roger] Federer at Wimbledon. If he plays well at Wimbledon, then he’ll win. And he did — easily.”
So Monty and the rest of the pack behind Woods is forced to root for the unlikely. That pack includes some serious names, players like World No. 2 Vijay Singh and two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal at 6 under and Spanish star Sergio Garcia and aging favorite Fred Couples at 5 under.
But Woods never has experienced an unexpected collapse — a Retief moment. And frankly, if the first two days of the Open qualified as a ceremonial sendoff for Nicklaus, the last two are likely to be little more than a pair of ceremonial victory laps for Woods.