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New King of the Old Course

When Woods won at the Old Course in 2000 by eight strokes, he completed the career Grand Slam. Now there are two players who have won all four major golf tournaments at least twice: Nicklaus and Woods. "To complete my first career Grand Slam here and then to complete my second at the same place, that's as special as it gets," Woods said. "The home of golf."

Woods is not going to recite poetry, even if he feels it. Last week, more so than usual, he was all business at the course. But the whole Tiger Island thing works for him. In Saturday's third round, paired with Montgomerie, who was raised at Royal Troon, Woods twice hit tee shots into gorse bushes, forcing him both times to take unplayable lies, and the spectators were giddy. Woods was O.K. with the partisanship. "Obviously," he said, "they should be rooting for him."

Besides, when it comes to getting a merely polite reception, Woods has good company. Nicklaus was not beloved when he won at St. Andrews in 1970. He had supplanted the charismatic Arnold Palmer as golf's king; he was too big, too blond, too perfect. But last week, when Nicklaus played (don't hold us to this) his last round in a major, there was unabashed love between the spectators and the "grreat mon." The Royal Bank of Scotland produced a five-pound note for the occasion. The queues were longer for the Nicklaus fiver than for the Tennents lager, which is saying something.

Goosen, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh--they all could have given Woods a game last week. The par-4 greens that Woods can drive or nearly drive (the 9th, 10th, 12th and 18th holes), they can reach too. What they don't do as well is repeat swings. Woods's primary competitor, still, is Nicklaus and his 18 majors. "I would have loved to have gone head-to-head with him in his prime," Woods said on Sunday night. "I think we would have had a lot of fun."

Instead, Tiger wins whenever Jack retires. When Nicklaus played his final U.S. Open, in 2000 at Pebble, Woods won. When Nicklaus played his final PGA Championship, at Valhalla in 2000 on a course he designed, Woods won. When Nicklaus played his final Masters this year, Woods won. When Nicklaus retired for the first time from the British Open, at the Old Course in 2000, Woods won. Then Nicklaus, 65, played one more time in the British Open, because it was held on the Old Course, and Woods won again, for the same reason. "Because of his length, his imagination, his touch and his will, Tiger will win here more often than not," Olazabal said on Sunday night. If Woods's body can withstand the stress of his fierce swing, he should have three more good chances. That's it. Maybe one of those St. Andrews Opens will get him to 18 major titles. Golf courses all over the world have 18 holes because the Old Course has 18 holes. Eighteen is golf's holy number.

The shot of the week for Woods came on the 18th hole, called Tom Morris, on Saturday night. The hole is 357 yards long, and it was playing into a crosswind, helping a draw shot. Hit it over the green and you're in town and out-of-bounds, so driver was out of the question. Caddie Steve Williams wanted his man to hit a two-iron. Tiger felt that would leave too difficult a pitch shot. He felt a three-wood, a soft one, would get him even with the hole. (Decisions, decisions.) He went with the wood, and his ball finished 35 yards left of the hole, even with the heavy metal flagstick but well off the green. Woods watched as Montgomerie, on nearly the same line, came up woefully short with his putt. Then, putting into a strong wind, Woods whacked the ball so hard he could feel the putter shaft flex. In his follow-through, he could see the head of his putter above Williams's head. The ball finished a foot from the hole, and the tap-in gave him the two-shot lead that he took into his Sunday practice session.

The lasting image from Nicklaus's final day on the Old Course will be his final walk over the Swilcan Burn Bridge, heading home from the 18th tee. It's a tourist snapshot, and a good one. The more meaningful image was less dramatic and seen by far fewer people earlier on Friday. On the 2nd green, grinding then in hopes of making the cut, Nicklaus left a 15-foot par putt in the jaws of the hole but 18 or so inches short. "Gad!" Nicklaus said, Midwestern as ever, competitive fire still burning. That's the guy Tiger plays in his dreams.

As for the Old Course, they both rank it as their favorite course in the world.

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