Nicklaus and Woods primed to add to Open folklore at the home of golf

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The Independent Online

Why? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. It is as simple as that. The two finest golfers of this or any other generation both walking the steps of the immortals across the most timeless arena in sport; one making what is widely assumed to be his grand farewell, the other making his grand hello back into the realms of the seemingly unbeatable.

The term "widely assumed" is used here because Nicklaus yesterday developed the intriguing idea he hinted at on Tuesday by telling his great friend and fiercest rival that he could yet play again, however unlikely that seems. Tom Watson almost laughed at the "typical Jackness" of what he was saying in front of the Royal and Ancient's hallowed clubhouse here yesterday.

"Last night at dinner, Jack asked a rhetorical question: 'What gets me in next year?'," recounted Watson. "You know what? It wasn't too much tongue in cheek and he asked it again at breakfast this morning."

A top-10 finish would do it, an eventuality that would be one of the greatest sports stories ever told. But seeing as Nicklaus has told quite a few of them in his 43-year professional career perhaps we shouldn't dismiss this delicious fantasy out of hand.

Except, it was easy to dismiss the chances of everyone else here yesterday as the blazing sun was casting the ominous shadow of Woods across the piece of turf that suits him like no other. The overwhelming feeling, though one that none of the other competitors will ever admit, is that this might be a catwalk for Tiger, just like he used to prowl them in the one-man sport of a few years ago.

The bookmaker's certainly believe the 29-year-old to be back to this level of dominance, chalking him up at 5-2, the shortest price he has been in a major since the Open three years ago. Muirfield 2002 came on the back of a run that brought him six out of 11 majors, confirming he was indeed playing a different game. The rise of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson was supposed to have changed all that and when Woods went the next 10 with nothing to show but frustration, we all assumed that the era was over and that Tiger would have to take his chances with rest of the Fab Four.

Well this year, he has taken them all right, at Augusta and so very nearly at Pinehurst, leaving the Fab Four on the brink of splitting up as their band leader looks set to go solo again. St Andrews is undoubtedly the centre stage where one of the others must venture to support him.

Who that will be depends on the usual imponderables of form and desire but also on the biggest imponderable of all that could just yet show that the Old Course still has all the requisite defences to keep out the new golfer - the Fife weather. When Peter Dawson said the perfect conditions for the next four days would be "sunny and very windy" he was thinking as much of the feelings of the 600-year-old links as that of the galleries. If it stays as calm as the forecasters are saying it will then Woods must be fancied to collect his 10th major by waltzing past his record of 19 under five years ago, even allowing for a putter that was strangely cool at the US Open as well as the extra 164 controversial yards the R&A have added here.

But if it blows? Then everything is up to be shot at, including most definitely the claret jug. Luck barges its way into it and with gusts and swales mischievously transporting balls into a Hell Bunker here and grabbing you by the Beardies there, suddenly Tiger will look human again, no matter if his ball-striking does happen to be superhuman. Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton are all too recent proof that in an open Open anything can happen.

For that reason the challenge of the home guard cannot be written off, despite it seeming more paltry than ever. The sad absence of Padraig Harrington - in Dublin grieving his father's death - has deprived these islands of their biggest hope of bridging the gap back to Paul Lawrie's triumph in 1999, and seeing as our next "contender" has played five Opens and managed to miss the cut in each of them perhaps we should not be getting too excited. After all, Luke Donald will be doing well simply to survive the heat generated by Nicklaus's walk into the sunset as he accepts the honour of partnering the 65-year-old and Watson in the first two rounds.

What of our old favourites then, those names we always look out for regardless of how many times they flop, like Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Colin Montgomerie even? All will need to drive the drives of the inspired, chip the chips of the blessed and putt the putts of the touched. Nothing else will even come close around here.

Of course, there might be another unknown American lined up for an extraordinary dalliance with destiny and there might be a few Europeans ready to join him - Sergio Garcia, most obviously - but it is almost inconceivable that the headlines will not read "Nicklaus" for the first two days and "Woods" thereafter. Can Jack make the cut, is Tiger back? We have asked the question, now St Andrews will give us our answers.

* Play in the Open will stop for a two-minute silence at midday today as a mark of respect for those killed in last week's London bombings.