Nicklaus tenders claim to bow out on winning note

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The Independent Online

And who else would have the gumption, the chutzpah, to dare suggest, however flippantly, that as a grandfather of 16, sporting a hip that has been replaced and a golf game that is in desperate need of something similar, that he could actually compete with what is undoubtedly the finest field ever assembled for an Open Championship? Only Jack Nicklaus, the Bear who is more golden here than he has ever been.

An indication of the carat was provided by a few of the honours bestowed on the 18-time major winner yesterday. The main Scottish bank has issued two million £5 notes with Nicklaus's face on to mark his farewell from competition (barring the odd defending champion's exemption). The only living people to have been previously able to use fivers as their own personal ID cards in Great Britain are the Queen and the Queen Mother. Therefore it is a real honour - for the Windsors, that is.

Then there is the fact that the Open happens to be here at the home of golf at all, a wonderfully fitting tribute that is no coincidence, as Nicklaus revealed yesterday.

"It's my eighth Open at St Andrews and I picked it for my farewell," he said at a packed press conference. "I picked it five years ago, actually. We were at the Champions' Dinner and I fully expected it to be my last year here. I was talking to Peter Dawson [the Royal and Ancient's chief executive] and asked when the Open was coming back to St Andrews. He said they were thinking about 2006. I said, 'Oh that's too bad, I'll be past the age limit by then'. He said, 'That's right, but if it happened to be 2005, would you come back?' I told him, 'Peter, you don't want to do that.' Next thing, I read it had been rescheduled to 2005. I thought that was an awfully nice compliment."

It was "awfully" unheard of, in fact, and will remain so until perhaps Tiger Woods retires in about 36 years' time. By 2041 the world will be a different place, but even if the Old Course has been turned into a retail park and Woods is Governor of Florida, the name of Jack will need no surname.

Not least among the Association of Golf Writers, which yesterday broke generations of tradition to bestow its "lifetime achievement award" on someone who is not one of the game's unsung heroes. "We felt we had to honour him," said John Hopkins, the association's chairman. "We just had to."

While everybody else was banging on about how touching it will be see him striding over that Swilcan Bridge for the last time on Friday, Sunday or whenever that photocalled piece of nostalgia hits the back pages, the man himself remained focused on the real big picture here.

"You know, the only emotion I get about the bridge and all that is right here with you guys asking about it," he said. "Honestly, I haven't paid much attention to it. I'm here as a competitor and we'll find out whether that competitor can make the cut and play through to Sunday. I don't understand sometimes what goes on in my head. But at the moment my head is saying, hey, I can play this golf course and I'm going to play and they should let me play."

As Dawson so expertly put it, "Jack is a player, not a monument". And Nicklaus is refusing to let his appearance here descend into the ceremonial waltz that he so hated being part of at the Senior USPGA Championship a few years ago, when the organisers pitched him in with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and those two waved, smiled and larked around while Nicklaus kept his head down and shot as low as he possibly could.

"Oh, I think it'll be fine here," he said. "Tom Watson is so very competitive and I certainly hope that Luke Donald thinks he is. I hope they don't look at it as ceremonial pairing. I know I don't."

Watson and Donald could not think otherwise if they follow his schedule. They would see it is no different to any other Nicklaus Open at St Andrews - including staying with his wife, two sons and daughter at the hotel they always use. Nicklaus insisted: "My routine's the same as the last, the one before that and so on. There's no way that I'm going to get out and walk around the town or anything like that when I'm at a golf tournament. But I hope to come back some day and maybe take that walk around the town. I understand it's a very nice place."

With that he was off on his way to a practice round - but as he marched towards that first tee, somebody shouted: "You going to miss all this, Jack?" He stopped and smiled, but not for long. In that steely gaze it was possible to see that Nicklaus is not prepared to miss anything this week. Least of all the cut.