Nicklaus ready to bid fond farewell to St. Andrews

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Associated Press

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Of all the moments that have defined the incomparable career of Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the most shocking display of emotion showed just how much he loves St. Andrews.

His idol, Bobby Jones, always said that a great career was not complete without winning the British Open at the home of golf, and Nicklaus was desperate to capture the claret jug on the Old Course. He had a one-shot lead over Doug Sanders on the final hole of the 1970 playoff when Nicklaus smashed his drive over the 18th green.

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Sanders played a bump-and-run to 5 feet, and Nicklaus chipped down to 8 feet. He crouched over the birdie putt, frozen until he was ready, then watched the ball curl in the right side of the cup.

Nicklaus is famous for raising his left hand and the putter when he makes a crucial putt.

This one was much bigger. He thrust his arm skyward and leapt with such force that his putter went airborne, causing Sanders to duck.

''I had never shown emotion like that before, and it was totally out of character,'' Nicklaus later said. ''But then, I had never before won the oldest golf championship in the world at the cradle and home of the game.''

It wasn't the only time he lost control on the Old Course.

Leading by two shots playing the 18th hole in 1978, tears began to fill his eyes as he walked toward the green and saw thousands of fans lining the fairways and crammed into balconies. His caddie, Jimmy Dickinson, had to jab him in the ribs to remind him there was still some golf left before he held the claret jug.

Nick Price remembers that moment. He was 21, playing in his second British Open, and had finished in a tie for 39th about two hours earlier. Price stuck around, wanting to watch Nicklaus finish.

''When he walked off the 18th green, there was a tear in his eye,'' Price said. ''I thought, 'Why is he crying? Why is he so emotional?' Only after a period of 15 years playing in the Open championship do you realize how special St. Andrews is.''

The most poignant moment awaits.

Sometime next week - possibly on Friday, preferably on Sunday - Nicklaus will cross the Swilcan Bridge down the 18th fairway at St. Andrews and wave goodbye to the greatest championship career golf has ever seen. He has said the 134th British Open will be his final appearance at a major.

Nicklaus can think of no better place to end his career.

''The reception every time I've ever played in Scotland, the people have always accepted me as I went around,'' Nicklaus said. ''It's been fun, a great experience for me every time I've gone there. I thought that was my place to want to finish up playing golf.''

Nicklaus calls himself a sentimental fool and expects emotions he has never felt before. He was in St. Andrews two months ago and walked onto the first tee and over toward the 18th green, breathing the wind off St. Andrews Bay and seeing the hotels and shops lining the tiny street next to the fairway.

Even then, his eyes welled up with tears.

''It just sort of gets me every time I go there,'' Nicklaus said. ''Just because what it has meant to the game of golf, and what it has meant to me.''

Tiger Woods is pursuing Nicklaus' benchmark of 18 professional majors, and might one day catch him. Still, it is difficult to conceive of another player dominating the four Grand Slam events the way Nicklaus did.

Only four other men have won all four professional majors - the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Nicklaus is the only one to have captured them all at least three times.

''He always showed up with the intent of winning,'' Woods said.

This will be his 164th start in a major, including 146 in a row from the 1962 Masters through the 1998 U.S. Open. And while his 18 majors define his career, even more staggering is that Nicklaus was a runner-up 19 times.

''He made it special, the way he played the game,'' Scott Hoch said. ''If he can't compete, then it's not worth playing for him. Jack is all about competition, and that's the way a warrior should be.''

Nicklaus is eligible to play the Masters as long as he likes, although he said in April he would no longer compete at Augusta National. Those close to Nicklaus do not expect him to change his mind next year.

As a former British Open champion, he is eligible to play until he is 65. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club recognized this was his last year of eligibility, so it changed the rotation to make St. Andrews the host course in 2005, one year ahead of schedule. But there are no tributes planned to mark Nicklaus' farewell.

''Jack is not one for that sort of thing,'' R&A executive Peter Dawson said earlier this year. ''He'd rather be treated like a competitor than a monument.''

In some ways, it is fitting that Nicklaus go out at the British Open.

He has won the Masters (six times), the U.S. Open (four times) and the PGA Championship (five times) as often as any other player, while 10 players have won more than his three British Open titles.

Even so, his performance at golf's oldest championship reveals a record that is unrivaled.

Not only was he a seven-time runner-up, Nicklaus went through a 15-year stretch in which he never finished worse than a tie for sixth in the British Open.

''For some reason, I went to the British Open and every year I felt like I was going to win; or if I didn't win, I was going to be right there. And I was,'' Nicklaus said. ''I just like the way they played the game.''

Nicklaus stopped playing a full schedule in 2000, the last time he played all four majors. He has made the cut only twice on the PGA Tour since then, both times at the Memorial.

But he has high hopes for St. Andrews. Even though Nicklaus introduced power to the modern game, the Old Course is a links course that doesn't demand strength to keep up with kids half his age.

''Realistically, I could do fairly well at St. Andrews,'' Nicklaus said. ''That's what I'd like to do.''

What motivates him to play well at St. Andrews, and why he wants to end his major championship career at the home of golf, are the people that come to watch him play. They appreciate good golf shots, not just big stars, in Scotland.

Nicklaus felt that warmth when he first came over to Scotland for the Walker Cup in 1959, and at Royal Troon in 1962 for his first British Open, and especially in 1964 for his first trip to St. Andrews, where he wound up on the windy side of the draw and finished second to the late Tony Lema.

''They understand their golf,'' he said. ''They appreciate something that's being done, and done well. Maybe as time went on, they embraced me a little bit more, simply because I guess I was more successful.''

Price can only hope he can be standing on the 18th again when Nicklaus finishes the tournament.

''This is the passing of an era,'' Price said. ''I don't think anyone's ever done as much for the British Open as Jack Nicklaus. Arnold Palmer took it to a level and made an awareness around the world, but Jack really took it further and made it a phenomenal championship.''

Nicklaus never has been one for a ceremonial farewell, although he understands the relationship with Scottish fans is different. They embraced him as a 24-year-old with a crew cut and indomitable will, and they will embrace him as an aging champion in his final major.

''They've always accepted me as a golfer, and that's what I wanted to be accepted as,'' Nicklaus said. ''Hopefully, that's what I was.''