Jack Nicklaus has come to play the British Open at golf's storied home one last time. At some point this week, he will cross the Swilcan Bridge on his way toward the final green on the Old Course, where he almost certainly will stop for a moment, perhaps doff his cap for the cameras and the adoring crowd and then finish what he has said will be his final appearance in a major championship.
Nicklaus, 65, would like to postpone the emotional farewell until Sunday, the better to end his unparalleled career by making the cut and playing on the weekend. He already has waved farewell to the Masters this year, just as he did at the U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach in 2000 and the PGA Championship that same year at Valhalla in Louisville, a course he designed.
And while he has left open the possibility that he still may occasionally play in his own tournament, The Memorial in his home town of Columbus, Ohio, he said again Tuesday that the most fitting end of all can only occur here.
"The Old Course to me is a very special place just because of what it is, where it is, how it sits here and how it relates to the history of the game," Nicklaus told a standing-room-only crowd in a media interview tent. "I suppose if you took St. Andrews and put it somewhere else, it would be just another golf course. But because it's here it becomes something very special. St. Andrews has meant so much to me in the game and to so many people, that's why I selected it, and I think it's the most appropriate place for me."
Just as Tiger Woods set his sights on Nicklaus's record 18 professional major championships, Nicklaus once worshipped his own childhood hero, Bobby Jones, who once told him that in order for any player to be considered a true master of the golfing universe, a victory at St. Andrews was a necessity.
"I always had that in the back of my mind," Nicklaus said. "Actually, it was in the front of my mind."
Nicklaus accomplished that feat in 1970, getting a huge break when Doug Sanders missed a 2 1/2-foot putt on the 72nd hole that allowed Nicklaus to get into a playoff. He then won by a shot over 18 holes the following day.
Just as Woods had his own semi-slump in the majors until he won the Masters in April, Nicklaus hadn't won a major championship since 1967 when he came here in 1970. His father, Charlie, who introduced him to golf and was his greatest fan, had died in February, and Nicklaus decided it was time to re-dedicate himself to the game.
"I sort of looked at myself and I said, 'You know, you've just sort of gone along,' " Nicklaus said. "I hadn't really worked at it that hard. I won a lot of tournaments in 1968 and '69, but I think I just got a little lazy.
"Everybody goes through periods where they go up and down. My father sort of lived his life for me . . . and I think I had let him down. When I won here it was very special for me. I walked into the press room and Bob Green [former golf writer for the Associated Press] looked at me and said, 'Jack, that's 10 major championships. You've only got three more to tie Bobby Jones.' I said, 'Oh.' The honest to God truth, I had never counted them."
Eight years later, playing what he has since described as "my best four days of ball striking in a major championship," Nicklaus won again on the Old Course, the last of his three Open titles. (His first came in 1966, at Muirfield.)
No other golfer has played the British Open any better. Consider that in 37 Opens dating from his first at Royal Troon in 1962 when he tied for 34th, Nicklaus has won three times, finished second seven times, finished third three times and fourth twice, with 18 top 10 showings. This week, he would happily settle for simply making the cut.
"I don't really pay attention to the ceremonial part until it becomes ceremonial, until I no longer become a competitive golfer in it," he said. "My head says 'hey, I can play this golf course,' and I'm going to go play. That to me is not ceremonial. So as long as my head stays that way, then I'm not worried about the other part at this point."
In his first practice round Monday in front of hundreds of appreciative spectators, Nicklaus shot a respectable 73 playing in a group that included six-time major champion Nick Faldo.
"He was the inspiration for me starting the game," said Faldo, who long ago had requested the practice round pairing with Nicklaus, "and I think it's fantastic he's come here to St. Andrews to play his last major round. I think that's just brilliant. . . . He still wants to play and he understands the strategy of the golf course. He knows where to play smart.
"He's playing solid enough. I definitely think he would [make the cut]."
Nicklaus has brought his entire family to Scotland and countless old friends are here as well. His son Steve will caddy for him, six months after Steve and his wife, Krista, lost their 17-month-old son in a drowning accident. As usual, his wife, Barbara, is expected to walk every step of the way in the gallery.
St. Andrews and the golf fans of Scotland have always felt a special affection for Nicklaus. In 1978, the Royal and Ancient, the game's governing body here and throughout most of the world, made him an honorary member. In 1984, St. Andrews University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. And this week, the Royal Bank of Scotland received permission to put his likeness on a five-pound note that will go into circulation starting on Thursday.
"The Scottish public takes you as one of their own," Nicklaus said. "They embrace you very much. They take to all the golfers, not just me. They like their winners. They appreciate the game; it's their heritage and that's the way it seems to fall into place for them."
Nicklaus said he also was most appreciative of a comment made recently by Peter Dawson, chairman of the Royal and Ancient, that he would rather be treated as a competitor this week rather than a monument.
"That's why I'm here," Nicklaus said. "I'm here as a competitor. And we'll find out if that competitor can play through to Sunday and try to do the best he can. Obviously I still look at a scenario when I walk down [the 18th hole] late Sunday afternoon. That's maybe not the most realistic scenario, but I still look at it that way. At that point in time, it will be something different. It will be looking at my last tournament."