To us, it’s the British Open. To the rest of the world, it’s just known as The Open Championship. The golf championship of the world as put on by the Royal and Ancient Golf club, commonly known as “the R&A.” I had a chance to attend the Open this year both as a reporter and as a guest of the R&A.
This 134th renewal of The Open had special significance on several fronts. First, it was back at St. Andrews, the home of the R&A and on The Old Course, known as the birthplace of golf. It also marked the final appearance as a professional player by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus is a three-time Open champion, having won twice on the Old Course, in 1970 and again in 1978.
Nicklaus often said a “real” Open champion is one that wins at St. Andrews, something Bobby Jones once told him. So when Jack said he wasn’t going to play any more competitive golf, Peter Dawson, who runs the R&A, asked him if he’d return to Scotland to play in the Open one more time if they played the Championship at St. Andrews. Nicklaus said yes, and the plans were put in motion.
They switched years between St. Andrews and Hoylake, putting the Championship on the Old Course in 2005, the final year Nicklaus would be eligible to play as a former champion at 65 years old. The R&A says the pairings are done in a blind draw, but it looked a bit fishy when Jack was paired with his long-time rival and 5-time Open champ Tom Watson, as well as young Luke Donald.
Donald and Nicklaus both have a promotional deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Mmmm. The Royal Bank even issued two million five-pound notes with Nicklaus’ picture on the back. He’s the only living person besides the Queen and the Queen Mother to ever have his picture on Scottish currency. So to the Scots, Britons and golf fans everywhere, this was a big deal.
Nicklaus is the best player of all time. His record is unmatched, and no matter what anybody does after him, including Tiger, his impact on the game, on and off the course can’t be matched. He played like nobody before him, displaying power and touch. He won all over the world, but managed to stay close to his family. Money never seemed to matter; it was the titles that Nicklaus was after. History was his only competition.
But while he’s the best player ever, he’s not the best loved. His methodical, business-like style throughout his career turned some fans to other players. His battles with Palmer, Trevino and Watson were titanic in proportion, but many people had trouble warming to Jack. His biggest shortcoming when it came to the crowds was that he wasn’t Arnold.
He didn’t emote, either on or off the course, which, of course, was part of his greatness. That’s changed a bit as he’s gotten older, but he was always steely eyed and seemed to have ice water in his veins when it came to hitting a big shot at the right time.
None of that meant anything this week as his every step at St. Andrews was recorded and reviewed by spectators and television viewers. Tiger lead after the first and second rounds playing nearly flawless golf, but it was every shot and step of Nicklaus’ rounds that were the centerpiece of the BBC’s coverage. BBC announcer Peter Aliss always refers to Nicklaus a “the great man.” There was no question this week that he was just that.
An opening 75, three over par was serviceable, but Jack wasn’t happy. While it seemed everybody wanted to be in place Friday afternoon to see Nicklaus’ final stroll down 18 at The Old Course, Jack didn’t see it that way. He’s often joked that he’s now a ceremonial player, but it was pretty evident that he wasn’t going to make it a trip down memory lane this week.
To him, it was a competition, and as such, he was going to try and win. Sixty-five or not, Nicklaus saw it as a chance to compete, and he did just that. His Friday tee time gave him a chance to pretty much know what the cut number was going to be after 36 holes. Something under par in round two, and he’d probably be around for the weekend. So when he birdied number one after a driver and 7-iron to 6 feet, the crowd went nuts. He hung around even par in his second round coming to 17, the famous “Road Hole” at St. Andrews. He was still three over, with the cut looking to be around even, or one over, so everybody figured this would be it, a memorable walk through the final two holes, including the huge amphitheatre that makes up the first and 18th holes at the Old Course.
Everybody except Jack of course.
“I figured if I made a couple of birdies coming in, I’d have a chance (to play on the weekend), Nicklaus said in his post-round interview. But alas, a bogey at 17 sealed this as his final round as a competitor at the Open Championship, so even he accepted the ceremonial walk down at to the cheers of the thousands assembled.
His stop on the Swilcan Bridge was classic Nicklaus.
He climbed to the top and put his leg up on the wall of the bridge in very deliberate fashion. As with just about everything, there’s a plan with Jack, but he didn’t linger alone, quickly inviting his son Steve as well as Watson, Donald and their caddies on the bridge for a photo. A final shot with just he and his son, and he was off.
After all, there was more golf to be played.
His drive was just short of the “Valley of Sin” that guards the 18th green. His second shot, a putt actually, went about 10 feet past. And, allowed to be the final player in his group to finish, in typical Nicklaus fashion, he made the putt for birdie. I had a spot at Forgan House, just to the right of the 18th green, a chance to see history happen with the other thousands there just for that purpose. The applause was thunderous and long as Nicklaus made the putt and waved to the crowds. It wasn’t emotional until he grabbed Tom Watson and wouldn’t let him go. They walked off the 18th arm-in-arm, nearly all the way to the clubhouse. Then his whole family came down the steps for hugs and kisses and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.