ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Jack Nicklaus posed atop the Swilcan Bridge, birdied the last hole he ever played in a major championship and had no intention of ever returning to St. Andrews, not wanting anything to dilute from such a powerful ending to an incomparable career.
That was 17 years ago. And those plans changed when St. Andrews wanted to make Nicklaus an honorary citizen on occasion of the 150th British Open. The only other Americans given that distinction were Bobby Jones and Benjamin Franklin.
It was the first time Nicklaus has been to the Old Course without golf clubs, and his appreciation only seemed to deepen.
“When I came here in 1964, I couldn't believe that St Andrews was a golf course that would still test golfers of that time,” he said Monday. “It still tests the golfers at this time. It’s a magical golf course. ... And to believe the game of golf essentially started here, it just absolutely is mind-boggling to me that it still stands up to the golfers of today.”
That's still to be determined.
The Old Course always feels a little older when it's crusty and firm, yellow and wispy, when the quality of a shot isn't measure until it hits the ground and starts bouncing along.
But without much wind in the forecast, and with the increasing talent of today's game, few courses are more vulnerable to low scoring. The par is 72 with only two par 5s, one on each nine. But there are a few par 4s reachable from the tee without strong wind.
U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick was a junior tournament winner at St. Andrews. Most recently his experience has been at the Dunhill Links Championship on the European tour in early October when the sky is gray and heavy and the turf is soft and green.
“I think with it being firm and par 4s more gettable, it could be a low one as well, weather permitting,” Fitzpatrick said.
Tiger Woods was back on the Old Course on Monday morning for nine holes, keeping up with an unusually busy schedule given the state of his battered right leg. He walked the course with a wedge and putter on Saturday into night and played 18 holes on Sunday. Woods also had the “Celebration of Champions,” a four-hole loop with other R&A champions through the years.
He is a two-time champion at St. Andrews, aware this might be the last time the 46-year-old plays an Open at the home of golf, at least at a high level. He first played in 1995 as an amateur.
So many others are getting to the course. That includes Collin Morikawa, who won in his first test of true links last year at Royal St. George's.
“Most courses by the second time I see it, I feel like I have a good grasp,” Morikawa said. “This course takes a little extra learning and memorization because there are so many blind shots and you’re aiming at so many towers, it just kind of meshes into one. There are so many greens that are double greens and big greens that you forget the little slopes, but that’s what you can’t do."
There are seven double greens. The 18th hole is a par 4 that players can reach off the tee. The 17th hole requires a tee shot over the corner of a hotel and has a road behind it.
It's been that way forever, or seems that way.
Morikawa was most mystified by the 351-yard 12th hole, short but deceptive because of four bunkers hidden from the tee.
“I have no idea what to do,” Morikawa said. “I don't know what I'm going to do. I could tell you 15 different ways to play it, and all could be wrong.”
The Old Course isn't the only thing new to Morikawa. He had his first experience of Open ceremony when he handed back the silver claret jug to Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A. It wasn't anything he found particularly enjoyable. Champions get a replica. They have to return the real thing.
“I woke up this morning and looked at it. The replica is beautiful, but it’s not the same. It really isn’t. It will never be,” Morikawa said. “But I don’t want to dwell on the past. I always look forward to what’s next. Maybe, hopefully, just giving it back kind of frees me up and allows me just to focus on winning this week.”
What kind of score will that take? It depends on the weather, another links tradition. It's why John Daly would win in a playoff at St. Andrews after finishing at 6-under par, and why Woods could win the next time at 18-under par.
Nicklaus devotes most of his time to golf course design, and he has been railing against technology, particularly the golf ball, for allowing the game to get out of hand.
He still believes the Old Course can hold its own. And if there is a record score this week?
“So what? That's sort of the way I look at it,” Nicklaus said. "They're shooting low now compared to what they shot 100 years ago. But times change and golfers get better, equipment gets better, conditions get better.
“But I don’t think it really makes a whole lot of difference, frankly,” he said. “It’s St Andrews and it is what it is, and it will produce a good champion. It always has.”