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New King of the Old Course

Tiger Woods, 2005 British Open
Alastair Grant/AP
Tiger won his second Open at St. Andrews on his third try.

This story on Tiger Woods' win at the 2005 British Open first appeared in the July 25, 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated.

In the realm of golf's holy turf, there's the Masters at Augusta every April. There's the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, maybe once a decade. And then, every six years or so, there's the British Open on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland--the holiest of the holies. That is why Jack Nicklaus, who played in nine Opens on the Old Course, winning two, chose the cradle of golf to bid us farewell, which he did last Friday, the 18th hole mysteriously moving to find his final birdie putt. Last week Jack's successor, Tiger Woods, won his second Open at St. Andrews on his third try, but you seldom hear him say the name of the ancient university town. Woods calls it "the home of golf," sounding, for a moment, as if he were just another tourist. Only the geniuses win on the Old Course, the savants like Seve Ballesteros (1984) and John Daly ('95) and the master strategists like Nicklaus ('70, '78), Nick Faldo ('90) and Woods (2000, '05). Tiger's final round on Sunday took four hours and four minutes. That pace is preposterously fast, given the scores of decisions that have to be made when navigating the world's oldest course, still a strange and magnificent test of golf, with its dirt fairways, brick-hard greens, black-hole bunkers and shifting winds. It's no coincidence that Faldo (who turned pro at 19) and Nicklaus (an Ohio State dropout) have been granted honorary doctorates by the University of St. Andrews. Woods, a Stanford dropout, will most likely get his sheepskin from Scotland's oldest university three St. Andrews Opens from now, when he's fortysomething and a more evolved person than he is at present.

Woods began the year with eight major professional titles, then won the Masters in a playoff, finished two shots behind at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and won last week by a conspicuous five shots over Colin Montgomerie, a son of Scotland. Ten majors (eight behind Nicklaus's best-ever number), third on the alltime list, and he doesn't turn 30 until Dec. 30. You might be thinking that this is the return of the old Tiger, the Tiger of 2000, when he won the U.S. Open (at Pebble), the British Open and the PGA Championship. No, Tiger 2005 is even more impressive.

Woods went 72 holes last week without a single ill-considered shot. Nobody else could say that. In 2000 his swing was so perfect, it looked computer-generated, which maybe explains how he won at Pebble by 15 shots. Now his swing is a work in progress. At the Masters and the U.S. Open he swung ferociously and hit down-the-stretch shots that were crazily off-line. But last week, for 72 holes, he made almost nothing but good swings and good shots. Even more telling was his touch on the immense greens. Woods had only one three-putt all week: at the 12th on Friday, when, having driven the green, he came away with a par anyway. Such impeccable play produced scores of 66, 67, 71 and 70, for 14 under par.

The final round was somewhat anticlimactic. After all, Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Retief Goosen or Sergio Garcia could have gone low and tested how much Woods really believes in his new swing. Nobody did. In his brief, bland victory speech to spectators and townspeople, and again in his claret jug press conference, Woods said he was particularly thrilled with ... his preround practice. "I'll tell you what," he told reporters, as if he were going to actually say something revelatory, "that was one of the best warmup sessions of my life, right there, this morning." What can one say? He makes $80 million a year, has a beautiful Swedish wife--and he's a golf nerd.

Of course Woods has deep, emotional thoughts, we just don't know much about them. It is known that he meditates--his Thai mother, Tida, is a Buddhist--and he did so publicly on the 14th hole at noon on Thursday, when play was halted for two minutes in memory of the victims of the July 7 terrorist bombings in London. Later, most atypically, he shared his thoughts. He said his mother had been in London on that day, staying in a hotel across the street from one of the deadly explosions. "I was very thankful that my mom is still here," he said. "I can only imagine what it was like for everyone else who was involved, whether they lost a loved one or had loved ones hurt."

He had another public meditation on Sunday, standing on the hallowed 1st tee with a two-shot lead over his playing partner, Olazabal. Tiger's father, Earl, at home in California last week and battling cancer, directed Tiger years ago to "let the legend grow," and Tiger has been seizing those chances ever since. St. Andrews is all about legends. The Tom Morrises, old and young. Nicklaus and his hero, Bobby Jones. And now Woods. The players, the deepest of them, truly feel something on the Old Course, where the game has been played for centuries, where people sat in lawn chairs last week, long after play was over, just looking at the links.

It was into that nowhere-else scene that Woods strode at 2 p.m. on Sunday. While Olazabal made practice swings, Woods gazed down the 1st fairway, in full reverie, spending a half-minute staring into some faraway place, then 20 or so seconds looking impassively at his funky black shoes. It's something he does only occasionally. His swing coach, Hank Haney, noticed it. "It's like a trance," Haney said. "If you walk by him then, he wouldn't even know it."

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