New King of the Old Course

August 19, 2011

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.”

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.