(Editor’s note: Golf Channel turns 20 years old on Jan. 17. In recognition, we are looking back at golf over the last two decades with a series of articles and photo galleries throughout the week.)
I’ve always said being a sports writer or editor beats having a job. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been either or both for the entire span of my career. As a writer, you often have a front-row seat when history is made, as well as the opportunity to ask the principals what was going through their minds at the time.
In the summer of 2005 I had the opportunity to witness history being made by the two greatest players of all time, on the greatest golf course of all time, on my personal greatest road trip of all time.
On the Old Course at St. Andrews, Jack Nicklaus made his final appearance in a British Open. That story line ended on Friday, with Nicklaus missing the cut but dramatically birdieing his final hole, and Tom Watson unable to stem a flow of tears as he talked about playing that final round with his longtime friend and rival. The weekend was given over to the battle at the top of the leaderboard, as Tiger Woods went wire to wire for his 10th professional major. The Scottish crowds were stirred by the challenge of Colin Montgomerie, who got within four shots of Woods after a second-round 66 and was only three back after 54 holes, but Woods slammed the door on Sunday with a 2-under 70, the only round under par among the final 14 players.
Because I was covering the tournament for the Palm Beach Post, Nicklaus’ hometown newspaper, I spent the first two rounds following him. I did my traipsing outside the ropes, where I stopped to chat with fans, asking them about their allegiance to the Golden Bear. One American fan told me he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus' hometown, and their high schools were in the same athletic league. "I just came to see Jack,” Chuck LaMotte told me. “I know it sounds crazy, but that's all I'm here for."
I spent much of those two days walking and talking with Nicklaus’ family, especially his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Nan O’Leary. We talked extensively about the emotion associated with Jack’s final major. "You can just feel how much they all want him to be here," a teary-eyed O’Leary said, referring to the fans who were constantly applauding and shouting “Go, Jack,” all while wearing Jack hats and Jack T-shirts, carrying Jack signs. "It's touching. How can you not be emotional?" Barbara Nicklaus talked about the relief of knowing, once it became evident that Jack wasn’t going to make the cut, that the end of his career had finally come. "I think the buildup is probably more emotional than the actual happening,” she said. “The buildup, you know it's coming but it's not here. Now it's here, and it is what it is."
No tears, no regrets. Jack was 65 and no longer competitive. It was time to move on to other things. He and Barbara knew it. Accepted it. It was what it was.
At the post-round news conference, Nicklaus made several references to being “a sentimental old fool”; wearing the same type of blue argyle sweater he wore when he won the British Open at St. Andrews in 1978; deliberately not wearing a hat for his final round of major-championship golf; getting to play his final round with Watson. ."Tom's probably more of an old sentimental fool than I am,” he said. “He came up 18 and had more tears in his eyes than I did.”
There were no tears on Sunday, just joy. Woods easily put his 10th major in the record books, beating Monty by five shots. Woods’ second British Open win also completed his second trip around the career Grand Slam. There was another accomplishment as well, one that I intended to make the focus of the column I had to write as a complement to the game story. Pressed up against a wall in a standing-room-only interview room, I was sure one of the golf writers would ask the question I needed Woods to answer. But 10 minutes into the session no one had broached my subject, so I raised my right hand in my best “pick me, pick me” gesture, hoping that the moderator would note my urgency and call on me despite my completely unfamiliar-to-him face.
Mercifully, he did.
So I was able to ask Woods how it felt to tie Bobby Jones on the all-time majors list. Using the same criteria for both golfers, Woods’ three U.S. Amateurs combined with his 10 professional majors to add up to 13, the same number Jones won in his brief, meteoric career.
"He's the one that set the mark before Jack came around," Woods said, politely referring to "Mr. Jones."
"He had just an unbelievable career - and he cut it short, too. To win that many tournaments that early in his career is amazing."
Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones. St. Andrews. What a week. Just don’t get me started on driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, shifting with my wrong hand. That’s a story for another day.