2005: British Open - Golden Moments

St. Andrews, Scotland

With apologies to local favorite and runner-up Colin Montgomerie, the 134th Open Championship was about two people and one thing, really. Jack Nicklaus waved a tearful goodbye Friday. Tiger Woods made another major statement Sunday. And, because of them, greatness hovered as a bright theme over the Home of Golf.

The Nicklaus-Woods twinbill was about as much neon as a golf marquee can burn. And they have this Passing of Royalty act down quite well. The Old Course at St. Andrews was just the latest venue for a figurative torch exchange.

In zoo terms, they have carved out a Bear-Tiger Slam of sorts. Nicklaus says farewell to the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2000, and Woods wins both. Nicklaus bids adieu at the Masters and British Open this year, and Woods goes J-squared, collecting the Jacket and the Jug.

“I wish he’d keep retiring,” Great Man No. 2 said.

Golf doesn’t get any more 18-carat special.

Nicklaus received more ovations than Live Eight, nearly suffered carpal tunnel by waving so much, fought tears posing on the Swilcan Bridge, attracted overflow galleries on the ground and the town’s balconies, holed a 15-foot putt for birdie on his final hole in major championship golf and, hardly the norm, received a standing O in the media tent.

Olivier never left the stage as well.

“I knew the hole would move wherever I hit it,” Nicklaus said of his final stroke, perhaps only part jokingly since he has been blessed by the golfing gods for so long.

Nicklaus, 65, would refer to himself as a “golfer” after the closing 72. And as an “old sentimental fool” who “choked and gagged” while feeling all the love. “Thanks for a lot of good years,” he said to the people and the media.

The likes of Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Tim Finchem watched Nicklaus finish. Then, as if scripted, Nicklaus exited the interview room following Round 2 as Woods walked in. They stopped and talked briefly. Nicklaus told Woods that he shot his best round of the year but still missed the cut by two strokes.

“I wouldn’t tell that to too many people,” Woods cracked.

Woods’ achievement, though, was screamworthy. While Nicklaus was about ceremony, Woods was about history.

The significant upshot is this: In going wire-to-wire for the third time in a Grand Slam event, Woods became the second, the youngest and the quickest to win each of the four major championships twice. He achieved the career Double Slam in his 35th major as a professional at 29 years, 6 months and 18 days old. Nicklaus did so at 31-1-7 in his 40th professional major en route to an unprecedented career Triple Slam.

“This is as special as it gets, doing it at the Home of Golf,” said Woods, who capped his first career Slam here in 2000. “It’s something you dream about.”

Having collected 10 major bottle caps, Woods is more than halfway to Nicklaus’ record 18 before turning 30. Only Walter Hagen with 11 – and perhaps an unforeseen body cast – stand between them. What’s more, Woods leads LPGA friend Annika Sorenstam, 10-9, a fact he plans to express to her in a needling text message.

“It’s not hard at all,” Woods said of the Nicklaus chase. “You know it’s going to take an entire career...To get 10 this early in my career is very exciting.”

If anyone is going to stop him, they had better not try doing so from behind. Woods is 10-for-10 in converting 54-hole leads in majors, and 32-of-35 on the PGA Tour overall. And he’s not planning on regression.

“Usually,” Woods said, “the golden years for a golfer are in his 30s. You can always get better. That to me is what’s exciting.”

Twenty-eight times someone has won two majors in a season, including Woods three times (2000, ’02 and now). Nicklaus leads with five multiple major seasons (1963, ’66, ’72, ’75 and ’80). But the Golden Bear never won three in a season. Only Woods (2000) and Ben Hogan (’53) have.

That means Woods goes to the year’s final major – next month’s PGA at Baltusrol, which he has never played – with another carrot dangling: He can be the first to win the so-called Triple Crown twice. And momentum would seem to be on his side, for he has gone 1st-2nd-1st in the year’s first three jewels.

“We’re seeing the repercussions from a month ago (U.S. Open at Pinehurst),” said Michael Campbell, who won there by two shots over Woods. “I kind of knocked him off his pedestal for a week, but he’s come back a stronger player and a better player.”

You could say that. Woods has worked hard on his game since mid-June. After putting poorly at Pinehurst, he went overtime on short-game tuning. At the Cialis Western Open, Woods worked 30 minutes each night on a Cog Hill putting green, hitting putts uphill to simulate St. Andrews’ slowish surfaces. Then he shot 64 at Royal County Down and 63 at The K Club in Ireland the week before.

If not for about 11 feet of North Carolina soil, Woods might be going for the Grand Slam in New Jersey. He missed par putts of 6 and 5 feet on Nos. 16-17 the final round at Pinehurst and ended two behind. He also finished second to last in putting.

“I took great positives out of that,” Woods said. “If you finish 80th in putting, you shouldn’t come close.”

For the week here, Woods was long and straight off the tee – despite using a backup driver after breaking the face of his first-string big stick on Tuesday – and fabulous on the greens. He led in driving distance (341.5-yard average) and putts per round (30.0 average) and, oddly high for a power player, tied for ninth in driving accuracy (73.4 percent). Even when he made the first of his four visits into bunkers – foreign soil in 2000 – he found a way to make birdie.

The only thing that knocked him off the leaderboard was a playful fan’s handiwork Sunday night. A mischievous type replaced Woods’ name on the big scoreboard at 18 with that of Jean Van de Velde, the goat of the 1999 Open.

In reality, Woods became the sixth player in the Open’s ancient history to lead after each round, and the first since Tom Weiskopf in 1973. He went 7 under par through 12 holes and gave the impression that the world’s oldest golf gathering might be finished by 11 a.m. Thursday. He overpowered the world’s most famous links with his driver and putter and led by four strokes midway with 66-67–133. He faced five eagle putts in the second round on a course with only two par 5s. He drove into two gorse bushes and fought a loose swing on Saturday but still salvaged 71 for a two-stroke lead thanks to clutch putting on the final three holes.

Last would be best. Montgomerie and two-time Masters Jose Maria Olazabal briefly came within one stroke midway through the fourth round. But, on a firm, fast course with tucked pins, Woods pulled away to 14-under 274 and a five-victory after a final-round 70.

“I hit it so solidly,” Woods said. “It was one of those rounds I’ll be thinking about a long time.”

Last time, in 2000, he won by eight strokes here at the course that probably suits him most, what with four driveable par 4s and two reachable par 5s. If the Open were held at St. Andrews annually, as past European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance has suggested, Woods probably would surpass Nicklaus’ major total even if he skipped the U.S. Open and PGA every year.

“I don’t feel uncomfortable over any shot around this golf course,” Woods said.

He clinched with one of his best ball-striking rounds of the year. He said he hit only one bad shot, at 13. He hit 14 greens in regulation and 12 fairways and almost hole three consecutive iron shots on Nos. 6-8 without, weirdly, making a birdie. A lob wedge shot hit the pin at 6 and bounced backward 30 feet. A pitch cruised the edge at the 390-yard seventh but he missed the 5-footer for birdie. Then a tentative stroke sent his ball right from 4 feet at the par-3 eighth.

“I’ve been waiting for him to have a ball-striking round like this because he’s been hitting the ball so well in practice,” Haney said. “He keeps getting better and better and better,” said Haney. “Everybody always asks, ‘Is he close? Is he there?’

“I don’t think there is a ‘there.’ ”

It helped that none of his seven closest pursuers starting the day would shoot under par in Round 4. And that crowd, in addition to Monty and Ollie, would feature heavyweights Singh, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Campbell and Brad Faxon, the PGA Tour veteran who spent about $7,000 in travel expenses trying to secure one of three local qualifying spots at nearby Lundin Links.

Since 2000, Ernie Els leads with 14 top 10s in majors, followed by Woods and Phil Mickelson with 13 and Singh with 12. But this year’s majors suggest that the so-called Big Four or Big 41⁄2 or Big 5 is trending strongly back to the Big One Era of 1999-2002. Of the others, only Singh has joined Woods in the top 10 of all three majors this year.

“When Tiger is on, he’s impossible to beat,” Mark Hensby said after opening with 67. “We all know that. People are scared to say it, but it’s true. He’s the best. If he’s playing well, everybody knows we’re playing for second.”

Montgomerie concurred.

“If he 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 doing,” said Montgomerie, 3-56-3head-to-head against Woods since March 1998. “It’s a bit like (Roger) Federer at Wimbledon. If he plays well at Wimbledon, he’ll win.”

No one called Woods invincible at year’s start. He had gone without a victory in his past 10 majors. He had finished last year fourth in earnings, tying his career low for a full season. He supposedly was enduring another of those perceived slumps, more faux than fact. And he was going through at least his second swing reconstruction, this time with Haney, his coach of 16 months.

After winning, Woods said he couldn’t express for print or airwaves what he’d really like to say to his detractors. “People criticized Hank and I for making the changes, but that’s why I made them, so I can get back here. . . . This is why – first, second and first in the majors.”

Woods’ swing is flatter than it was two years ago. Haney says Woods’ swing is more on plane than ever before. He says Woods, for the first time, no longer has the club across the target line at the top.

“My observation is he feels he has all the shots he needs,” Haney said. “(Saturday) he left the practice range and said it was cool to be able to hit all these different trajectory shots.”

Woods now has won 44 tournaments and $51.74 million on Tour since autumn 1996. That doesn’t count all the other trophies he started collecting at age 4 or whenever, or the roughly $80 million he pulls in annually from other sources. In other words, he could fall off his wallet or his trophy case, provided it were vertical, and break a dozen body parts.

Any Open drama was fractured in the span of about 90 seconds Sunday. Consecutively, Olazabal missed a 10-footer at 12 and bogeyed, Montgomerie power-lipped 13 from 6 feet and bogeyed, and Woods sank a 4-footer for birdie at 12 after nearly driving the green. That put Woods 14 under and four ahead of both.

“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Olazabal said of chasing Woods. “But it’s close to impossible.”

Woods also snuffed out potential trouble late in the third round. He saved bogey from 4 feet at 16, saved par from 10 feet at 17 and two-putted for birdie from at least 100 feet at 18. That stretch put him two up on Olazabal and eliminated a number of challengers.

“If those three putts hadn’t gone well, then it’s a different ballgame,” said Montgomerie, resurgent at 42. “He copes with the pressure and the situation around him, being Tiger Woods, incredibly well. . . . There’s never a disgrace losing to the best player of our generation.”

That best player is subject of a new Nike commercial that features this verse from the song “Ooh La La” by The Faces: “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was stronger.”

Woods has no such problem. Nor did Nicklaus. In their 20s, both were well advanced beyond their years. They will be forever linked by the record book. And by St. Andrews, where each has won two Opens. And by high praise.

“Words are really not enough for Jack,” said Nick Faldo, another Old Course champion. “They should make him out of gold and stick a little Jack on every tee box.”

Woods himself called Nicklaus the “greatest champion who has ever lived.” He went on to say he would have loved to have gone “head to head with him in his prime. I think we would’ve had a lot of fun.”

In their own way, they both had plenty of it during a glorious week here in the Auld Grey Toon.

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